Making sense of conservatives’ sudden vaccine endorsements

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What’s happening

Over the course of the past week, a number of prominent Republican lawmakers and conservative media figures have made strong statements in support of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“These shots need to get in everybody's arms as rapidly as possible,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during a press conference Tuesday. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, emphasized the importance of the vaccines after receiving his first dose. A number of GOP governors implored their citizens to get vaccinated — including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who has been vocal in denouncing strict COVID mitigation strategies, like mask mandates and business closures.

The trend among GOP lawmakers was echoed in conservative media. “I believe in the science of vaccination,” Fox News commentator Sean Hannity said during his primetime show while imploring his viewers to “take COVID seriously.” Although Hannity has since said that he didn’t specifically recommend that his audience get vaccinated, some of his colleagues have been more direct. Fox News has also aired a PSA urging their viewers to get the vaccine. The CEO of Newsmax, a burgeoning conservative network, wrote an editorial praising President Biden’s vaccine rollout.

The statements come at a time when the U.S. is facing an uptick of COVID-19 deaths, almost entirely among the unvaccinated. Polls show that Republican voters are significantly less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats. Some of the worst outbreaks in the current wave of infections have been concentrated in red states with relatively low rates of vaccination.

Why there’s debate

It’s too early to know whether this sudden change of heart will persuade skeptical conservatives. But the shift in tone on the right is itself notable, after several months in which many mainstream conservatives have been mostly quiet on the issue, while far-right voices have been promoting anti-vaccine conspiracies with no scientific justification.

The simplest explanation for the change is that, faced with the stark reality of the new wave of infections devastating conservative parts of the country, high-profile figures on the right believe that a more assertive pro-vaccine message is needed to save lives. Some conservatives have also pushed back on the idea that there has been a shift, arguing that many high-profile Republicans have long endorsed vaccines.

Left-leaning pundits have been more critical. They argue that the sudden flurry of Republican vaccine endorsements is mostly a political strategy meant to deflect blame, as the Delta variant runs rampant in under-vaccinated areas. Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit that monitors right-wing news, makes the case that it’s wrong to give Fox News credit based on a few pro-vaccine statements, when the network continues to air anti-vaccine segments from its star hosts, like Tucker Carlson.


Some Republicans deserve credit for endorsing the vaccines all along

“A few conservatives have long been outspoken in favor of vaccinations. A group of Republican members of Congress who are medical doctors produced a pro-jab PSA this spring, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been as fiery about COVID-19 precautions as he is about anything.” — David A. Graham, Atlantic

The GOP doesn’t want voters to blame it for the new spike in infections

“Apparently, Republicans are starting to realize that a Republican-driven reignition of the pandemic might be bad for Republicans.” — Tom Nichols, conservative commentator

Republicans are putting politics aside to save lives

“All too many people want to politicize this issue. That’s a huge mistake: The vaccines developed under President Donald Trump are perfectly safe.” — Editorial, NY Post

The new wave of infections punctured the right-wing media bubble

“I do think that with all the propaganda and all the political posturing, a lot of Republicans have convinced themselves it really is not that big of a deal, that they could just get away with a hands-off approach. But guess what? We keep learning the same lesson over and over, don’t we, folks? … We may be done with COVID. COVID’s not done with us.” — Chris Hayes, MSNBC

The reasoning doesn’t matter if the end result is lives being saved

“It steams some Americans to hear Sean Hannity, Mitch McConnell, Ron DeSantis and others belatedly and seemingly in unison issue full-throated calls for Americans to get vaccinated. … We instead welcome these prominent Republicans and conservative commentators to the pro-vax camp with the sincere hope that they keep talking and that the message gets through to millions.” — Editorial, New York Daily News

Negative media coverage was hurting the GOP

“Republican elites haven't suddenly grown a heart. It's just a lot harder to pin the blame for the continuing pandemic on Biden if the press is, correctly, blaming Republicans for it. What we're seeing is likely just Republicans getting the media off their scent, and not a move that will do much, if anything, to get more shots in arms.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon

Mainstream Republicans want to counteract fringe conspiracists within their party

“The politics of vaccination have changed, and Democratic strategists see a common thread running through conspiracy theories embraced by the GOP that include misinformation about the vaccines and Trump’s lie that the last election was rigged.” — Jonathan Allen, NBC News

GOP figures are making a sincere effort to promote the vaccine, but the message is being drowned out

“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.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post

Fox News is still fueling vaccine resistance in its coverage

“Sprinkled amid all this vaccine skepticism and hostility have been out-of-context soundbites here and there from hosts (even including Carlson) that can be interpreted as endorsements of vaccines. These bites aren’t reflective of the network’s broader coverage of the pandemic but at least provide a pretext for Fox spokespeople to try and push back on claims its coverage has been irresponsible, and are good enough to convince casual observers of Fox that the network is pivoting.” — Aaron Rupar, Vox

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