Is Rand Paul an Anti-Vaccine Nut Job?


How do you know that the presidential nomination season is getting in high gear? Because suddenly the most important issue in the world is whether GOP hopefuls Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul are pro- or anti-vaccine.

Christie, reports The Washington Post, had the temerity to suggest that

"some measure of choice" on whether shots guarding against measles and other diseases should be required for children. Paul told CNBC "he thinks most vaccines should be voluntary, citing 'many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.'"

(Note: I'm quoted in the story, to the effect that "'There is a broadly ascending libertarian sentiment in the Republican Party… Even mainstream establishment Republicans understand they need to speak to the libertarian wing'").

The Washington Free Beacon, which rarely misses an opportunity to get a dig in on Paul, has dug up this 2009 appearance on the awful, conspiracy-mongering InfoWars show hosted by Alex Jones, in which the future senator opines:

"The first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates, and they're talking about making it mandatory," said Paul. "I worry because the first flu vaccine we had in the 1970s, more people died from the vaccine than died from the swine flu."

As a matter of history, Paul is flat-out wrong. The first flu vaccines were developed in the late 1930s. And various statements he has made (including the recent CNBC quote) implying that vaccines cause "many tragic cases" of kids developing "mental disorders" flies in the face of the leading science on the issue. As Reason's Ronald Bailey noted yesterday, the supposed link between vaccines and autism has been definitively rebuked. If Paul is nodding to that, he's wrong. And as Bailey notes, in the CNBC show, Paul called vaccines "one of the biggest medical breakthroughs we've had." (FWIW, Paul's meh clarification on his position regarding vaccines and autism will no doubt be his last word on the matter.)

Indeed, even in the 2009 appearance where Paul, an opthamologist by trade, indulged the paranoid fantasies of the InfoWars audience, he stressed:

"The whole problem is not necessarily good versus bad on vaccines, it's whether it should be mandatory or the individual makes the decision," he added. "And sometimes you want to not be the first one to get a new procedure, you want to see if it works well before you choose."

While Paul said he would personally choose to get the smallpox vaccine again and would have taken one for polio, he said the decision to vaccinate should be left to the individual. He also said the risks of the vaccines need to be weighed against the risks of the diseases.

"You have to weigh the risks of the disease versus the risks of the vaccine," Paul said. "But I'm not going to tell people who think it's a bad idea that they have to take it because everybody should be allowed to make their own health care decisions."

These don't strike me as the rantings of an anti-vaxxer wingnut such as Robert Kennedy Jr. (whose 2005 story on the matter for Salon was pulled by that site) or Jenny McCarthy or even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton circa 2008, but rather a pretty considered position of someone who takes seriously limits on state power. There are at least two issues under consideration when we talk about vaccines: What does the science say and whether they should be mandatory (and which ones and under what circumstances). Those are separate questions and it sounds as if both Christie and Paul understand that in a way the media doesn't.

I say this as someone who has gotten my own kids vaccinated against all the childhood diseases and a variety of less-likely maladies as well. And someone who is far more interested in what presidential candidates of any party or ideology think about issues such as spending and debt, civil liberties and NSA surveillance, the drug war, and foreign policy and military intervention (Paul's non-interventionist bent is the true wellspring of the Washington Free Beacon's interest in the candidate).

None of this means that Paul—and Christie—should be playing fast and loose with the best knowledge on this or any other topic. If they want to be taken seriously, they need to up their games not just in terms of presentation but in terms of depth of thought. But the fact that we're talking about vaccines and Republicans (even though anti-vax sentiment is distributed across the political spectrum) is a reminder that the 2016 is just around the corner and that the press is always more interested in side issues than the ones that most deserve our attention.