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Biden’s Fear of Vaccine Mandates Screwed Terry McAuliffe

The White House worried about backlash from the anti-vaxxer minority. As Virginia’s gubernatorial election shows, it should have worried about the Covid-weary majority.

Biden speaks at a rally for Terry McAuliffe
Biden speaks at a rally for McAuliffe in Arlington, Virginia, on October 26.

Sometimes a thing is so true for so long that we become reluctant, out of sheer boredom, to acknowledge that it’s still true. The centrality of the Covid pandemic to every facet of our lives is one of those things. What’s happening to the economy? Covid-19. The virus explains the sharp fall-off in economic growth during the summer months, versus the robust growth we saw in the spring when it looked like the pandemic was winding down. Covid explains the simultaneous wave of resignations, which I’ve suggested has more to do with psychology than with economic conditions in the United States.

It’s no different with politics. A Fox News exit poll Tuesday showed that a majority of Americans thought the country was headed in the wrong direction. How can they think that when statistics suggest the pandemic may be starting to wind down for real in the U.S.? Because the seven-day average of new cases is nearly 70,000. People still don’t feel safe.

Look at White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki, who is fully vaxxed and works in a White House that, unlike Donald Trump’s, takes serious health precautions against the spread of Covid. She contracted Covid. Look at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, also fully vaxxed. He’s got Covid. If your celebrity-gossip diet is more mass-market, recent Covid cases include Aaron Rodgers, quarterback for the Green Bay Packers; the rocker Jon Bon Jovi; and the Aquaman and Dune actor Jason Momoa. Colin Powell died of Covid last month (while undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma).

What this tells me is that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency temporary Covid standard, which was released Thursday morning (text; summary), arrived at least three months too late to help the Democrats keep the governorship in Virginia or win the governorship of New Jersey by more than a hair. The White House had long delayed issuing a Covid rule that would apply to sectors beyond the health care industry, even though Biden had promised one in the 2020 campaign and announced his first day in office that OSHA would produce an emergency Covid rule by March. Biden dithered because he feared the backlash from anti-vax nutters, mask-refusers, and Covid deniers. What he failed to grasp was that the electoral damage would be much worse if he failed to bring Covid cases down and keep them down.

There was a lot of screaming and yelling in September when Biden announced the new Covid requirements, which require companies with 100 employees or more to compel employees to get vaccinated or submit to weekly Covid testing. But the backlash died down by October. Even before Biden announced the OSHA rule, United Airlines told its workers to get vaccinated or get lost. More than 99 percent complied. Remember all that pissing and moaning among New York City municipal unions about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaccine mandate? On Thursday, four of them agreed to it. Ninety-two percent of city workers were vaccinated already.

“Vaccine mandates work,” NPR’s Andrea Hsu reported in early October. Two weeks later, Hsu reported that thousands of workers across the country got fired for refusing to get jabbed, but she emphasized that these represented “only a tiny fraction of overall employees, not even 1 percent in some workplaces.” On September 9, the day the White House announced the vaccine mandate, 53.7 percent of Americans were fully vaxxed. By November 3, it was 58.5 percent, and the mandates hadn’t even taken effect yet. That’s excellent progress when you consider that these are all stragglers. Everybody who wanted to get vaccinated and had the means to get to a vaccination center was jabbed already.

Now imagine that instead of Biden’s announcing the vaccine mandate in early fall, he’d announced it in early summer. Instead of just shy of 60 percent, we might be above 70 percent. We might even be closing in on 80 percent, the lower bound for achieving herd immunity. The pandemic wouldn’t be over, but the end might be within sight, because the president’s merely saying there would be a government requirement that all workers get tested weekly—at the workers’ own expense, according to the OSHA rule—prompted a lot of employers to implement vaccination mandates on a much faster timetable. (The OSHA rule doesn’t take effect until January 4; that’s also when the more rigorous executive order requiring vaccinations for government contractors kicks in. An indoor mask mandate for unvaccinated workers that’s included in OSHA’s temporary standard takes effect one month earlier, on December 4.)

What impact might an earlier OSHA rule have had on Tuesday’s elections? The Covid questions on CNN’s Virginia exit poll are instructive. A 54 percent majority favored employers requiring their workers to get vaccinated. Only 43 percent opposed. A larger percentage of voters said they didn’t trust Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin to handle Covid (54 percent) than said they didn’t trust Democrat Terry McAuliffe (50 percent), which made considerable sense given Youngkin opposed the state’s mask mandate for schoolchildren and also opposed vaccine mandates, while McAuliffe favored them. But neither candidate could get a majority to trust him on Covid. That reflected frustration with the persistence of the pandemic. No wonder 64 percent of Virginia voters, according to the Fox News exit poll, said the country was headed in the wrong direction.

Would McAuliffe have won if Biden had announced his Covid mandates three or four months earlier? Obviously there were a lot of factors at play in Virginia, and in the other races around the country where Democrats didn’t perform as well as they’d hoped. But McAuliffe would have had a better shot at winning. Even if he’d lost, the postelection verdict nationwide would have been, at worst, “mixed results” rather than “Democratic debacle.”

The good news is that stricter Covid requirements are now in place and it’s looking pretty doubtful they’ll get thrown out in court. We didn’t reach herd immunity in time to save McAuliffe. Let’s hope this crisis is behind us by the 2022 midterms.