The Sunday Times: The right’s Mr Moderate goes down with a bad case of measles
Both political parties in America have their off-‐message, loony wings. For my taste, the Republican side has the edge for sheer offensiveness with its claims about “legitimate” rape, equating gay marriage with bestiality and so on. It’s what gives the Republican presidential primaries their destructive feel as the absolute no-‐hopers are allowed to smash the party’s centre ground with impunity.
Although they are still a year away, campaigning for the Republican primaries has begun in earnest and already we have the first winners and losers. The subject in the ring was the nationwide measles outbreak that started in California and has since spread to 13 other states.
Back in December the yet to be indentified “Patient Zero” went on an outing to Disneyland. Since then the measles virus has crossed the entire country, with more than 100 cases and counting.
On the face of it, measles is not a peculiarly Republican preoccupation. Nevertheless, both Chris Christie, the moderate governor of New Jersey, and Rand Paul, the maverick libertarian senator for Kentucky — two likely Republican contenders in 2016 — weighed in on the issue.
To the surprise of many Republicans — and the glee of the Democratic party — neither would endorse the establishment view that every child in America must be vaccinated.
Paul surprised his fellow Republicans because he is an ophthalmologist by training. His remark during a televised interview that he was aware of “walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders” after vaccination made him sound like one of the diehard supporters who still flock to the disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield. (Since being struck off by the General Medical Council for serious professional misconduct over his research into links between the MMR jab and autism, Wakefield has been ensconced in Austin, Texas, and is living well, by all accounts.) The Democratic National Committee promptly posted Paul’s remarks online.
It was Christie’s comments that attracted the most attention, however. Until recently he had been widely seen as the moderate wing’s best hope of recapturing the White House.
Christie was a successful governor, with strong Republican and bipartisan credentials, and had seemed unassailable until a scandal last year that involved his office and the deliberate creation of traffic jams on a busy commuter bridge to harass a New Jersey Democratic mayor.
A Democrat-led inquiry found no conclusive evidence that Christie had been personally responsible for the order, but Bridgegate tarnished his image.
Already on the back foot, Christie now needs to do well in the early primaries. But the first two, in Iowa and New Hampshire, have been the graveyard of many a moderate Republican such as Jon Huntsman, a former US ambassador and governor of Utah, who bombed in both states in 2012 and then retired from the fray.
Christie was in Britain when he made his remark about vaccinations, saying that “parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide”.
The general consensus is that Christie, a sensible man, was trying to lob a message to the doubters within the Iowa caucus that he can be their man. Since he could never hope to compete with the Christian hard right, he was obviously trying to give himself an edge with the “just say no to Washington” wing.
Many Washingtonites such as the Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who spent a year as a child bedridden with polio, were not amused. A number of trenchant statements from Republicans and Democrats followed, and Christie soon found himself having to clarify and reclarify his stance. His trip to the UK became a disaster.
The Republicans’ discomfort is only part of the story. It isn’t the gun-toting Iowans who are fuelling the measles outbreak; it’s the tofu-eating Californians. Although Barack Obama was unequivocal last week about the need for vaccinations, back in 2008, as a presidential candidate, he said the science on whether MMR caused autism was “inconclusive”.
Likewise Hillary Clinton, who tweeted her support for vaccination last week, called for a study on links between vaccines and autism in 2008.
It’s no surprise that the measles outbreak started in California, home to more alternative lifestyles than the tea varieties offered at Whole Foods Market shops. At the ultra-progressive Waldorf School of Orange County, where plastic toys are banned and pupils eat only organic food, 62% of nursery-age children were reported to have missed some or all of their required vaccinations in 2011.
In the Orange County Register newspaper a parent said she and her husband had done “a lot of research” and concluded: “Big business and the drug companies don’t have my children’s best interest in mind.”
How doubters, who include the businessman Donald Trump, the actor Jim Carrey and the environmentalist Robert F Kennedy Jr, get away with spouting their nonsense is down to the growing distrust among Americans for all forms of authority.
Polls show that a lack of respect for or belief in public institutions isn’t limited to the obvious ones such as Wall Street and the military. It includes the judiciary, the media and medicine.
Discounting authority has pedigree in America. The former president James Madison, co-author of The Federalist, a volume of 18th-century essays on the constitution, wrote: “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”
Mistrust is now morphing into a rejection of facts in favour of feelings. In the case of vaccinations, Americans who feel that only natural ingredients should be ingested are pairing up with those who feel that individual rights trump federal interference.
As Christie’s blunder shows, the distrusters have a powerful presence in American life but limited formal power. Who was the winner in the recent pre-Republican primaries mouth-off? Jeb Bush, who now takes centre stage as the only reliable moderate.