Biden to start calling out Republicans for vaccine disinformation?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Details here are vague so maybe there’s less to the story than meets the eye. But if it’s true, it’s destined to be an epic backfire. Having Biden pointing fingers at Republicans for America’s mediocre vaccination rate will grow the partisan divide on vaccines rather than shrink it by making righties that much less inclined to take Biden’s advice.

In fact, one of Team Joe’s own advisors on vaccine messaging has urged them against this. Frank Luntz has been sharing data from his focus groups with the White House to help them refine their pitch and told them that drawing partisan lines is counterproductive. According to former Biden COVID czar Andy Slavitt, “His whole point is that, you hear CNN say ‘Republicans, conservatives aren’t getting vaccinated, they’re vaccine hesitant.’ It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and it creates a wedge, it talks down to people. And that was not helpful.”

Even so, the Biden brain trust is apparently considering it.

President Joe Biden himself could soon take on some of the corrosive messages emanating from the right, officials said, as the administration’s vaccination efforts hit a wall just as the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus rips across the country. CNN spoke with five people in the administration who described the White House’s efforts to fight back against the misinformation swirling about Covid-19 vaccines…

A senior administration official said a decision had been made to take a harder edge against the disinformation, with plans in the coming days to call out Republican elected officials and specific social media platforms

[P]lans to more directly address the vaccine skepticism being aired on Fox News and other conservative outlets are set to roll out soon. Over the past week, the White House has sought to rebut conservative criticism of its plan to go door-to-door to educate Americans on the virus, a backlash fueled by conservative media that only underscored for officials the intensifying politicization of the vaccine effort.

The first step in the plan has already been taken. The surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, issued his first advisory of the Biden presidency this morning. The subject: Vaccine misinformation and how to counter it when you hear it from friends and family. Murthy took care not to blame any individuals or groups in his report, notes the Times, describing it as “assiduously apolitical” befitting Murthy’s role as a nonpartisan scientific spokesman. He appeared at today’s White House briefing to discuss the advisory and was followed by Jen Psaki, who said the administration is asking Facebook to police vaccine misinformation more closely:

That stat about how just a dozen influencers are responsible for most of the vaccine disinformation on the site is hard to believe — but apparently true.

Back to Biden. Which Republicans is he planning to name and shame for vaccine misinformation, bearing in mind that the sort of person willing to use their platform to discourage vulnerable people from getting immunized is either incapable of shame or would revel in the president giving them some attention? Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Madison Cawthorn don’t care if Biden’s mad at them for scaremongering about the door-to-door vaccination campaign. They’ll cut campaign ads with the soundbite. Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham won’t care either. They’ll play the victim, claiming that Biden’s trying to “censor” them by criticizing them for encouraging vaccine skepticism.

And they are encouraging vaccine skepticism. To take just one example, watch this clip from Ingraham’s show that aired on Tuesday:

Her guest claims that vaccinated people haven’t gained much protection against the Delta variant, which is the opposite of the truth. The Israeli study he mentions found that Pfizer was 64 percent effective in preventing infections by Delta but was 94 percent effective at preventing severe illness from Delta. News stories about rising hospitalizations in hard-hit areas lately routinely quote doctors as saying that nearly all — and sometimes all — of their patients are unvaccinated. Even against Delta, the vaccine is the difference potentially between feeling under the weather for a few days and going to the ICU. For some reason Fox News primetime can’t clearly say that to their mostly older audience.

Will having Biden call them out for it change their behavior, though? If anything, since lib-owning is the sine qua non of post-Trump conservatism, Ingraham would treat being attacked by the White House as a badge of honor. Which makes me think that, if Biden does end up ignoring Luntz’s advice and going after Republicans by name, it’s more of a political gambit than a strategy for increasing vaccinations. He wants swing voters to know that if the rest of 2021 is more of a slog with the pandemic than the promise of the early national vaccination effort led us to believe, Republicans rather than his own administration should be blamed for it. Including and especially at the ballot box.

Luntz didn’t just give them PR advice, though. He also offered policy advice, calling Biden’s proposal for door-to-door vaccinations a loser. “I don’t know why they came up with this strategy, I don’t know why they recommended it. The likelihood of success is extremely low,” he told Politico. “You have to either know the person or trust a person. Someone who shows up at your door isn’t someone you know or trust.” A new poll from Morning Consult backs that up. Although the general population supports the policy thanks to a heavy skew among Democrats, the part that most needs persuading on the vaccines, Republicans, is against it:

One of the few things that might move the needle, said Luntz to WaPo, is if Trump started aggressively promoting vaccination. The problem with that idea according to a former senior Trump official is that there’s political risk to it for Trump. Some of his more hardcore anti-vax fans will decide that not only is his endorsement not enough for them to get immunized, he’s actually selling them out to Fauci and the “deep state” by trying to push the vaccine on them. That’s a double whammy potentially since it means some of his base will turn on him and comparatively few of them may end up being vaccinated on his advice, giving the media grounds to crow that Trump is losing his influence over his own supporters.

Exit quotation from Luntz: “We always ask, what will be the last straw? What will be the moment that we lose the ability to communicate and cooperate and get things done? Well, we’ve reached it. This is it.”