As the Delta variant spreads across the U.S., cases of COVID-19 have surged by 1,000 percent from late June. More people are hospitalized with the coronavirus than at any time since February. Southern states, led by Republicans who’ve frequently refused to support vaccination, have been hit especially hard. But some Republican politicians are shifting their rhetoric: Alabama Governor Kay Ivey chastised unvaccinated people for “letting down” Alabamans by driving a spike in infections, with her state holding the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson reversed his position on mask mandates, saying he had made a mistake by signing a ban on mandates into law. The Fox News host Steve Doocy, a regular bearer of Republican messaging, has started encouraging viewers to get vaccinated. Is the party changing its stance on the pandemic?

Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. According to Ornstein, some Republicans are finally conceding that masks and vaccinations can help control the pandemic—but most continue to reject the view. Party leaders and voters have become rigid in beliefs that prevent them from accepting a vaccine that could save their lives. For decades, Republican elites have disregarded scientific findings for political ends, as they’re doing now with data on the virus, masking, and vaccines. At the same time, with partisan hostility toward Democrats increasing, more and more Republicans reflexively oppose any position Democrats hold, including support for mask mandates and vaccination requirements. And an ongoing devotion to Donald Trump has led many to follow his example on science denialism, Ornstein says, despite the former president having been vaccinated in January.

Michael Bluhm: Do you see a shift in Republicans’ position on vaccination?

Norm Ornstein: It’s a shift among some, and we see that with some members of the Senate, as well. But it’s overwhelmed by the opposite reality. We’re seeing with Kay Ivey and Asa Hutchinson the realization that their own people are dying and their states are getting overwhelmed, with hospitals unable to do anything else.

We just saw Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has been among the most aggressive anti-vaccination, anti-mask people, calling for outside medical personnel because their health system is overwhelmed. But he hasn’t said, Oops, I was wrong—everybody get vaccinated.

What we see on Fox News is a lonely voice here and there. But the evening shows—the real opinion leaders—continue to push anti-vaccine, anti-masking realities.

For a long time, Republicans were touting Operation Warp Speed and saying, Donald Trump deserves a great deal of credit, because he’s the one responsible for these vaccines. Then they turned around and said, These vaccines, they’re terrible.

Donald Trump, who got vaccinated privately along with his family in the White House, did not come out and do it in public or say, These vaccines are wonderful. Everybody should get them. The signal that it sent to Republicans in a tribal world was, If they’re for it, we’re against it. Donald Trump had enough influence to make the difference here.

Bluhm: What’s behind the party’s rejection of vaccination?

Ornstein: One is a conservative philosophy run amok. It’s about “freedom,” and government imposing its will is bad no matter what. That’s going to overrule everything else.

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