Republicans' vaccine refusal is about more than just sabotaging Joe Biden

The GOP has a long history of undermining Democratic presidents at precisely the worst moments for the nation

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 19, 2021 9:49AM (EDT)

Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

One of the Republican Party's go-to strategies to counter a Democratic president's campaign promise to bring the country together is to obstruct everything the president attempts to do, working night and day to keep their people as angry and unhappy as possible so they can call the Democrats a failure for being unable to fulfill their promise. Such a promise is a bit of a sucker's play by the Democrats, to begin with, but it's a natural impulse since Republican administrations so often leave office having put the country through an overwhelming trauma with the nation yearning for healing. It takes a lot of chutzpah for the Republicans to pull this over and over again, yet they have no shortage of that particular characteristic. In fact, one might even call them shameless. And, after all, it works, so why should they stop?

You can go back quite a way in history to find this cycle, but I think the recent example of Barack Obama's presidency is the most vivid.

Obama ran as a guy who signaled a new day in America, one in which a gifted, young, Black politician with a compelling vision of a diverse, multi-cultural society and a smart, technocratic style could usher the country into the new century and put an end to all of the overwrought political turmoil of the post 9/11 era. Obama had big ambitions, not the least of which was an idea that he could take many of the thorniest political arguments off the table with a Grand Bargain that included some offers the GOP supposedly couldn't refuse. The thinking was that if they could just get past some of these big disagreements, the temperature would be lowered and the Democrats would have running room to fulfill their agenda.

There was more than a little bit of hubris in that idea. The economy was in freefall which meant that it was going to take a whole lot of political capital to stop its descent into chaos. And Democrats also made the big mistake of telegraphing their intentions by holding dinners with members of the press and letting them know the contours of the big Grand Bargain plan even before the inauguration. The GOP took notice. 

Under the circumstances, the new administration assumed the Republicans would eschew crude partisan politics and work with the Democrats for the good of the country. So it came as quite a shock when the most popular right-wing personality in the country, Rush Limbaugh, came right out and said that he wanted Obama to fail. On his show, Limbaugh said he'd been approached by a major publication and asked to write a 400-word essay on his hopes for the Obama administration. His response?

My hope, and please understand me when I say this. I disagree fervently with the people on our side of the aisle who have caved and who say, 'Well, I hope he succeeds. We've got to give him a chance.' ... So I'm thinking of replying to the guy, 'Okay, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails.'

It did cause quite a stir at the time but Limbaugh was just saying what the Republican establishment was thinking.

Then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, (who also has a habit of saying the quiet part out loud) famously said the next year, in the heat of very intense negotiations, "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Columnist George Will said on Fox News Sunday, "of course I want Obamacare to fail, because if it doesn't fail, it will just further entangle American society with a government that is not up to this." Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio even personally sabotaged a bipartisan immigration reform bill that he'd worked on for years rather than give Obama (and the country) a win. But perhaps the best example of the phenomenon I described above came from the Donald Trump prototype, former VP candidate Sarah Palin, speaking at a Tea Party Convention who said very sarcastically, "I gotta ask his supporters, 'how's that hopey, changey stuff working out?' "

Obama promised hope and change and the Republicans thwarted him at every turn. They then taunted him for failing to deliver. It's a very cynical ploy in the best of times but seeing them use that tactic in the midst of a global pandemic in order to ensure Biden fails in his ambition to vaccinate the country and save lives is beyond even my most pessimistic view of Republicans.

I had been wondering about the basic logic of these Republican governors and other officials' stubborn hostility to the vaccines. Obviously, the vast majority of them are not fooled by the massive disinformation campaign that's keeping so many of their constituents from protecting themselves and others. They can see that cases are surging and that the unvaccinated are getting very sick with the Delta strain that's much more virulent than the COVID of last year. Yet they are still passing laws banning mask and vaccine mandates for schools and, in some cases, even workplaces. In the state of Florida, where 20% of all the current new cases are, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is running for re-election selling beer koozies that say "Don't Fauci My Florida." In Tennessee last week Republicans banned state public health outreach to teenagers for vaccines of any kind, not just COVID.

It is now clear that Republicans are going out of their way to ensure that COVID spreads and kills more people. In any normal society, you'd have to wonder how it could possibly serve these people to let their own voters get sick and die. But obviously, they're just relying on their old playbook and have decided it's politically profitable to make Biden's vaccine distribution program fail. Their constituents are basically human sacrifices for the cause.

Trump made this explicit on Sunday with this statement:

Joe Biden kept talking about how good of a job he's doing on the distribution of the Vaccine that was developed by Operation Warp Speed or, quite simply, the Trump Administration. He's not doing well at all. He's way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don't trust his Administration, they don't trust the Election results and they certainly don't trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth

The line is that Biden is failing because some people don't trust him. And why don't they trust him? Because Republicans, starting with Donald Trump, are lying to them about what Biden is doing. It's a neat trick and one they've used quite successfully before. This time they're actually killing people to own the libs. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton