Three months ago, as California Gov. GAVIN NEWSOM was turning around his fate in the state's recall election, many Democrats came to the conclusion that they'd struck political gold. Mandates to get the Covid-19 vaccine weren't just extremely valuable public health policy but they were electorally powerful too.
Now, moderate and frontline members of the party are singing a different tune.
In recent comments, several high-profile Democrats have stated their opposition to vaccine mandates, specifically applied to private businesses. The most recent Democratic lawmaker to voice her concern was Michigan Gov. GRETCHEN WHITMER. Once considered to be Biden’s vice president, Whitmer said she opposes mandates, citing the impact on the state’s workforce — as Michigan grapples with upticks in cases and residents are split on whether or not to get the vaccine.
"We’re an employer too, the state of Michigan is," Whitmer said on Monday, according to the Daily News in Greenville. "I know if that mandate happens, we’re going to lose state employees. That’s why I haven’t proposed a mandate at the state level. Some states have. We have not, we’re waiting to see what happens in court."
Whitmer isn’t the only Democrat now sounding these notes. Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) has said he does not support requiring businesses with over 100 employees to ensure that their workforces are vaccinated from Covid-19. Sen. JON TESTER (D-Mont.) has thrown a bit of shade on it too. Gov. PHIL MURPHY (D-.N.J.), shortly before an unexpectedly close re-election win, shied away from embracing a strict vaccine mandate for teachers and other public workers. Gov. KATHY HOCHUL (D-N.Y.), who is running for election after taking over for disgraced former Gov. ANDREW CUOMO (D-N.Y.), has stated her opposition to a “broad-based mandate for all private-sector workers in New York.”
The souring of some Democrats on the mandate comes as the courts strike legal blow after legal blow against a series of vaccine mandates President JOE BIDEN unveiled in September, and it’s prompting concerns in the party that they’re ending up with the worst of all worlds: a blunt policy that won’t go into effect but that will saddle them politically.
“On one hand, it’s just another thing added to the pile of shit that he’s already been dealing with,” a Democratic strategist told us. “On the other hand, it’s just one more front that he and his team are going to have to fight.”
The White House, so far at least, seems unbowed by it all. Aides are convinced that the mandates are necessary to finally tamp down the pandemic, which they believe is Biden’s political end-all, be-all. And they point to an uptick in vaccination rates after businesses and other institutions implemented their own mandates as evidence that they work.
“We know it works. That’s why the administration and the president will continue pressing forward,” White House press secretary JEN PSAKI said of vaccine mandates at today’s briefing.
Biden himself was initially skeptical of requirements that people be vaccinated against the coronavirus, out of a belief that most Americans would jump at the chance to get their shots if they were free and easily accessible. He wanted to steer clear of the politicization that has hampered much of the Covid-19 response, viewing mandates as a concept that could easily spark blowback.
“The concern all along was that mandates can be polarizing, that they have the potential to further entrench people in their resistance,” said CELINE GOUNDER, who advised the Biden transition on the Covid-19 response. “They really tried with incentives over the summer, hoping they didn’t have to go the route of mandates.”
The Delta variant’s emergence — combined with growing GOP opposition to the vaccination campaign — upended that calculation. Faced with a resurgence of cases, plateauing vaccination rate and few alternatives, administration officials by September concluded any political damage done by imposing mandates would be far outweighed by the price that Biden would pay if he failed to rein in the pandemic.
“It’s also important to keep in mind the importance this issue had on the presidential election. Swing voters in particular strongly disagreed with Donald Trump’s failure to act and ignorance towards the severity of the virus,” said ADRIENNE ELROD, a Democratic strategist and former Biden campaign aide. “Voters wanted leadership and a plan, and President Biden delivered.”