I’m asking earnestly as I don’t know the answer. Christie’s getting hammered because his comments this morning made him sound oddly agnostic on vaccinations: My wife and I thought it was important for our kids, he seemed to say, but hey — different strokes for different strokes. Not the sort of forceful response you’d expect from this guy, of all people, in the midst of a measles outbreak. Obama’s statement yesterday was more forceful — absolutely, you should get your kids vaccinated. But neither one of those statements touches on the key issue. The key issue is how much power the state should have to compel vaccinations for kids whose parents are opposed. Christie seems to think there should be room for exemptions, at least for some illnesses. Does Obama? Hmmmm.

Obama’s (and Josh Earnest’s) language is a lot more mild than “there oughta be a law.” In fact, when you look at a fuller account of what Christie said this morning, he seems to be okay with compulsory vaccination, at least for some illnesses:

I didn’t say I’m leaving people the option, what I’m saying is that you have to have that balance in considering parental concerns because no parent cares about anything more than they care about protecting their own child’s health,” he continued. “And so we have to have that conversation. But that has to move and shift, in my view, from disease type. Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others.”

“Different disease types can be more lethal, so that the concern would be measuring whatever the perceived danger is by a vaccine, and we’ve had plenty of that over a period of time, versus what the risk to public health is, and you have to have that balance,” he said.

The “balance” he was talking about this morning, I think, was between the severity of the illness and the liberty interest of parents in raising their kids free from state interference. In the case of a highly infectious, dangerous disease like measles, the balance tips towards mandatory vaccination (or at least, that’s how I understand his “clarification” within the past hour). In the case of a less infectious or less common disease, like anthrax or Ebola, the balance tips towards parental choice. If you don’t accept that balance, says Dan Foster, then you’re giving the left an inch and they’ll eagerly try to take a mile:

If you support mandatory, full-spectrum vaccination and oppose “death panels,” you’d better be able to at least gesture at a limited principle located somewhere between the two. To anticipate your reply, of course I think there is such a limiting principle, but there are plenty of tough cases. Children aren’t routinely vaccinated against anthrax, for instance, because of the level and nature of the threat. And the vaccine causes enough serious adverse reactions (to about 1 percent of recipients) that there were lawsuits and injunctions filed in response to a Clinton-era program making them mandatory for military personnel. Do you support mandatory anthrax vaccination for all kids?…

Remember, when progressives argue for coercion in health-care policy, it’s almost always under the principle that the cost of individual bad behavior is borne by society. So while a measles outbreak is a pretty clear-cut illustration of this, so too is the “obesity epidemic,” according to some.

You can certainly support mandatory measles vaccinations while opposing, say, bans on “Big Gulps.” Policymaking is all about line-drawing. But that’s Christie’s point — we draw different lines for different diseases. If he’s wrong, why aren’t flu shots mandatory? (No, really. Why aren’t flu shots mandatory? I can’t figure that out.)

So why, if he’s making a fairly pedestrian point about vaccines and parental rights, is he taking such a beating this morning? Part of it, as I said, was his tone. He sounded surprisingly ambivalent about the urgency to vaccinate at a moment when the CDC is warning of a “large outbreak” of a disease we thought we’d beaten, with alarming polls like this attesting to how far the anti-vax crankery has spread. You want politicians using their megaphones right now to encourage vaccination, not give it a live-and-let-live shrug. Part of it too, though, is the sense that what he said isn’t his heartfelt position. Christie’s a centrist and a man who palpably enjoys barking orders at people; if ever there was a cause for which you’d expect him to shift into “do what the government tells you, morons” mode (this is the same guy who ordered Kaci Hickox quarantined on the mere possibility that she might have had Ebola), it’s vaccinating little kids to protect them from deadly diseases. Instead, this. Sure seems like he’s pandering to the GOP voters who soured on Rick Perry in 2012 for pushing a mandatory HPV vaccine in Texas, which means he’s putting his own political self-interest above the public health interest in getting as many kids vaccinated as possible.

And the weird thing is, it won’t win him any votes. Anyone who’s so far to the right that they think Rick Perry is a statist RINO for wanting mandatory vaccinations for HPV surely thinks Chris Christie is a liberal Democrat in “Republican” disguise for his myriad centrist sins. Christie would have been better off here following the Jeb Bush playbook and taking the unapologetic centrist line — yeah, sometimes the government needs to step in and impose small burdens on freedom to prevent national emergencies. Even pro-vaccination right-wingers would have respected him for it. Instead, with this, he alienates everyone. So weird.

Update: Well, well. Today isn’t the first time Christie’s winked at vaccination opponents:

While running for governor in 2009, Christie wrote a letter wherein he seemed to acknowledge a link between autism and vaccinations—a theory for which there is no scientific proof.

“I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage. Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”

Also in 2009, Christie told The Don Imus Show that he struggled with then-Gov. Jon Corzine’s flu-shot mandate and the problems some parents have with vaccines.