A tale of two headlines, appearing in two newspapers on the same day:
"Growing number of Republicans urge vaccinations amid delta surge" (Washington Post)
"As Virus Resurges, G.O.P. Lawmakers Allow Vaccine Skepticism to Flourish" (New York Times)
Which is true? They both are. The glimmers of responsible behavior among elite Republicans are real, but they're being overwhelmed by the indulgence of fear, resentment, and conspiracy theories literally costing lives every day.
And if you ask them whose fault this all is, Republicans will say, It certainly isn't our fault. Blame the Democrats.
Let's take stock of the situation America is now in. We're still in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century, one that has killed 4 million people worldwide (and perhaps many more). In one of the greatest scientific achievements on record, extraordinarily effective vaccines were rapidly developed to protect against the virus that causes covid-19. While many countries in the world have gone begging for doses, here in America we have all we need and more.
And yet tens of millions of people aren't vaccinated, the highly contagious delta variant is spreading rapidly (it now accounts for 83% of new COVID cases, according to the CDC), and refusing vaccination has become yet another emblem of conservative identity, a way to Own the Libs. According to one recent poll, a third of Republicans think it is probably or definitely true that the government "is using the covid-19 vaccine to microchip the population."
"One of the last things they do before they're intubated is beg me for the vaccine" said one doctor dealing with a COVID surge in Alabama, where fewer people have been vaccinated than any other state. "I hold their hand and tell them that I'm sorry, but it's too late."
And when a few Republicans summon the wisdom and courage to say to their constituents, "Gee, you might want to take this free life-saving medication so you and your loved ones don't die," it actually makes news.
The Republicans doing and saying the right thing are mostly people on their way out (retiring Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri), governors without presidential ambitions (Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Spencer Cox of Utah), and the few like Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for whom opposition to Trumpism has become part of their brand.
There are some others like Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the second-ranking House Republican, who have just come around. But even those urging vaccination want everyone to know that if anyone's to blame for millions of Republicans refusing to do so, it's Democrats.
"Every time Jen Psaki opens her mouth or Dr. Fauci opens his mouth," says Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Ks., "10,000 more people say I'm never going to take the vaccine." The alternative could only be that Democrats should never encourage anyone to be vaccinated.
So while a few Republicans are now unequivocally telling people to get vaccinated, most follow a much more cynical formula, one that looks on first glance like it's helpful but actually isn't.
They say vaccines are good, but quickly insist that no one should be forced to take them, insinuating (or simply stating) the lie that President Joe Biden or someone else has actually suggested forced vaccination (Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina even said mere door-to-door vaccine outreach would lead to confiscation of guns and Bibles).
Along with the insistence that "freedom" to refuse vaccination and endanger those around you is so terribly precious, they encourage people to "research" the question. But in right-wing circles these days, "do your research" means "spend the next 16 hours reading insane conspiracy theories on Facebook."
Sean Hannity got a lot of praise for pleading with viewers on Tuesday to get vaccinated, urging: "Research like crazy. Talk to your doctor." But before and after, on his radio and television shows, Hannity has kept on promoting vaccine skepticism. Not to mention that the programs that air before (Tucker Carlson) and after (Laura Ingraham) his on Fox News are absolute sewers of vaccine misinformation.
So while we should be happy that some Republicans are (sort of) doing the right thing, as long as so many other elite conservatives are sending the opposite message, it probably won't penetrate far enough. The pandemic will go on, herd immunity will continue to elude us, and people will keep dying.