Biden, Hawley and Covid: What would TR Do

CARDIFF, WALES - DECEMBER 08: A member of staff poses with a phial of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination health centre on the first day of the largest immunisation programme in the UK's history on Dece... CARDIFF, WALES - DECEMBER 08: A member of staff poses with a phial of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination health centre on the first day of the largest immunisation programme in the UK's history on December 8, 2020 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. Wales joined the other UK nations in rolling out the covid-19 vaccine on Tuesday, a rare moment of coordination after months of disjointedness in the four nations' pandemic response. Wales introduced a 17-day "firebreak" lockdown in October and November to suppress the surge in covid-19 cases, but infections have continued to rise. (Photo by Justin Tallis - Pool / Getty Images) MORE LESS
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August 10, 2021 11:46 a.m.

Missouri senator and presidential aspirant Josh Hawley, best known for giving a thumbs up to the January 6 rioters and trying to overturn the November election, has now joined Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott in furthering the spread of the pandemic. Hawley is sponsoring an amendment to the infrastructure bill that would restrict federal funding for K-12 schools that mandate Covid-19 vaccines for students or require students to wear masks.

In an earlier incarnation, when he was a protege of Stanford historian David Kennedy, Hawley published an admiring study of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. It’s worth pondering (in the manner of WWJD) what TR, if he were transported forward a century, would do in response to the renewed outbreak of Covid-19. I think it’s pretty obvious: he would do everything he could to convince people to vaccinate, including whatever means of coercion he had at hand.

Constitutional support for compulsory vaccination dates back to a Supreme Court ruling during TR’s presidency. In 1905, the court ruled in Massachusetts v. Jacobson that states could mandate vaccinations for small pox. The court ruled that “[r]eal liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty], whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”

President Joe Biden has been inching cautiously toward requiring vaccination. His most recent pronouncement would require federal employees and those employed by federal contractors either to be vaccinated or face regular testing. But unless these workers were tested daily, or twice daily, they could still spread the Delta variant. New York and California have allowed similar loopholes in their mandates. That’s not enough to stop the pandemic from spreading and hospitalizing and even killing people. The only exemptions to vaccination should be for legitimate medical reasons.

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A single federal mandate, backed up by significant fines, may not pass the courts, but a mandate on all institutions that get federal funds would pass muster. These would include all health care facilities and universities, as well as many businesses. Perhaps, too, the federal government could withhold funds from states like Florida.

Some Democrats seem queasy about alienating voters. To be sure, there are voters who will reject anything Biden proposes. But what voters most want from presidents — after all, Theodore Roosevelt was, perhaps, one of the most popular presidents ever — is the determined exercise of leadership. What they least respect is equivocation or what Obama-era behavioral economists heralded as “nudging.” Biden has a chance to show the Hawleys and DeSantises who is boss. He should welcome the opportunity.

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