Republicans in Congress folded like a deck of cards in the face of the pandemic and they are still behind the ball.
“The political elite have changed their tune” is about as self-evident a truth as single men in possession of large fortunes wanting wives. Every year, spring returns to melt the snow; every time there’s a bid to protect big business, it will be signed by Sen. Mitch McConnell; and every election season, opinions that were anathema one month ago sprout from the unlikeliest of lips.
As TAC managing editor Micah Meadowcroft has pointed out, we should be wary of Democrats who have suddenly begun to sound centrist. We should also be wary of those just to the right of center, who appear, at last, to have discovered their spines—particularly on matters of Covid-19 policy. After just under two years of browbeating from their voters back home, the grand ole party has only flipped the script on Covid policy now because their Democratic betters have decided “endemic” is suddenly cool and fun. (Remember, the Church of Science only appoints woke priests, but that doesn’t stop Republicans from trying to earn entry.)
A bit like the Baptist church, the Republican party’s problem is not its failure to walk in lockstep on Covid policy, it’s that its step is always a good 30 yards behind, trying to catch up. Take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example. It took most level-headed people about a month after March 2020 to notice CDC guidance was more often grounded in politics than actual science: masks don’t work, now they do, now you’re a criminal if you pull yours below your nostrils.
By the time The American Conservative reported on Israel’s natural immunity discovery back in September 2021, which showed previous infection was better protection against the virus than getting the vaccine, it wasn’t abnormal for those looking for serious studies to look beyond the CDC. Still, it took most Republicans in Congress until this week to allow themselves to say natural immunity provides better protection than vaccines—but only because the CDC has said so. (Florida’s Ron DeSantis and a handful of state houses, meanwhile, moved on this months ago.)
Rand Paul, at least, really was vindicated in his claim that cloth masks don’t offer much protection against the virus, which he made before the CDC admitted it was true. Most other senators have not been so bold as the gentleman from Kentucky.
Who can forget the lab-leak theory? The corporate media’s preferred aspersion to cast on Republicans, before evidence of a genetically modified virus first discovered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became inescapable, was a favorite for good reason. After a handful of Republicans, including Sen. Tom Cotton, floated the “fringe theory” that we should investigate whether the virus could be a bioweapon from China, Cotton quickly walked it back in the face of media criticism. The theory remained anathema for all good Republican congressmen until 15 months later, when Dr. Anthony Fauci admitted there may have been some credence to the idea. Speak truth to power (except when they call you names).
Especially on vaccine mandates, the GOP has been late to raise the warning flag, which, based on the swiftness and harmfulness of the 2020 lockdowns, should have been hoisted from the very beginning. As late as July 2021, top members of Congress were urging their constituents to get vaccinated in hopes that appeasement would be a winning strategy in avoiding the mandates that conservatives had been prophesying for months. Days later, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a vaccine mandate for New York City, and the nationwide employee mandates and the military’s mandate followed in rapid succession. Instead of getting out ahead of the issue, the grand ole party, once again, chose a laissez-faire strategy, content to complain about “tyranny” after the fact rather than attempt to prevent it before.
So before your inbox is inundated with fundraising emails from the Republican National Convention and Republican congressional leadership, full of all-caps harangues begging you to help put them back in power and win back the majority in November, remember that all of this Covid madness started with a Republican majority in the Senate and a Republican president. Remember that lockdowns and masks were all but universally lauded by the politicians in Washington, even after their constituents back home started rattling the cage. Remember that, whatever Kevin McCarthy tweets about Congress being a one-party system, these people were still elected and may still be challenged in primaries by candidates who could better serve the American people.
Yes, Republicans should want to win back the House in November, and no, politicians will never be perfect. But there comes a point, especially after the last two years, when we must draw a clear line between talk and action. The pandemic raised important issues, which have, for the most part, been ignored by those in power—questions of the tension between public health and public trust, or the proper roles of our pharmaceutical companies and federal health agencies—for which we need men of sound judgment.
How many of our Republicans lacked such judgment, especially when it came to locking down the entire nation overnight, or foreseeing harmful and discriminatory vaccine mandates? If they can be bowled over by every strong wind, they are little better than the Democratic majority they spend half the day complaining about, whatever the letter by their names.
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