Despite his many faults, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been consistently responsible in response to the coronavirus pandemic. When many of his far-right allies balked at wearing masks, for example, the Kentucky Republican was nevertheless an enthusiastic proponent of the common-sense precaution.
Similarly, it was just a few weeks ago when McConnell, seemingly aware of recent polling, explicitly issued an appeal to GOP men, urging them to get vaccinated. “I can stand here as a Republican man — as soon as it was my turn, I took the vaccine,” the senator said at an event in his home state. “I would encourage all Republican men to do that…. Take the vaccination.”
That’s good advice — which one of McConnell’s members is eager to undermine.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, questioned the need for widespread COVID-19 vaccinations, saying in a radio interview “what do you care if your neighbor has one or not?” Johnson, who has no medical expertise or background, made the comments Thursday during an interview with conservative talk radio host Vicki McKenna.
To the extent that the senator’s question wasn’t rhetorical, Johnson might care whether his neighbors are vaccinated because he doesn’t want them to get sick, die, or put others at risk. Even if the senator is indifferent to his neighbors’ wellbeing, Johnson might well care about local hospitals and morgues being pushed to the breaking point — a problem many communities have confronted since the start of the crisis.
But as multiple reports made clear, the Wisconsin Republican — who actually led the Senate committee responsible for domestic security for six long years — had plenty of other mind-numbing things to say about vaccinations in the same interview.
Johnson went on to insist it’s “not a fully approved vaccine”; he’s “getting highly suspicious” of the “big push to make sure everybody gets the vaccine”; there’s “no reason” to encourage Americans to get vaccinated; and he has “doubts” in response to White House requests that the public should “trust the government.”
Oh, and he’s suspicious of some kind of nefarious leftist conspiracy, too.
Johnson went on to say that he believes COVID-19 is a good enough pretext for the vast left-wing conspiracy to keep the country locked down. “You’re talking about climate change as the next step — I don’t think they’re going to let go of COVID-19 anytime soon,” he added.
The problem is not just that the senator’s rhetoric is dumb, it’s also the risks associated with his irresponsible nonsense. There were likely unvaccinated people who heard this radio interview and were persuaded not to get the shot because they heard Johnson’s ridiculous, dangerous rhetoric.
What’s more, let’s not lose sight of the larger context. As regular readers may recall, in mid-March 2020, as the scope of the coronavirus crisis was just coming into view, the Wisconsin Republican went further than most in downplaying the importance of mitigation efforts. As part of his case, the senator told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “[W]e don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about.” This was a tragically bad argument, for reasons he didn’t seem to fully grasp.
A couple of months later, Johnson was seen on the Senate floor without any facial covering. “I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing,” the GOP senator said. “I think around here, we probably won’t have to.” This, too, was wrong.
In July 2020, Johnson argued that the United States “overreacted” in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which was unfortunate at the time, and which is a perspective that looks much worse now, as the death toll approaches 570,000 Americans.
In late 2020, Johnson sunk lower, holding multiple Senate hearings to promote pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean at Brown University School of Public Health, appeared as a witness at one of the Senate hearings and was amazed by the Wisconsin senator’s apparent suspicion that there’s a “coordinated effort by America’s doctors” to deny patients hydroxychloroquine because of a corrupt scheme involving physicians and the pharmaceutical industry.
All of this, of course, is unrelated to Johnson’s ugly rhetoric about immigration and efforts to “remake the demographics of America,” his efforts to downplay the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and his ridiculous conspiracy theories related to the 2020 presidential election.
The far-right senator’s second term ends next year. He has not yet said whether he’ll ignore his earlier term-limits pledge and run for re-election.
Postscript: Just as I was publishing this, Johnson’s office issued a statement on his latest controversy. It read:
“Everyone should have the right to gather information, consult with their doctor and decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated. I strongly supported Operation Warp Speed, and celebrated its astonishingly rapid success. Now I believe government’s role (and therefore my role) is to help ensure transparency so that people have as much information as possible to make an informed decision for themselves. It is a legitimate question as to whether people at very low risk of suffering serious illness from Covid, particularly the young and healthy, should be encouraged to take a vaccine that is being administered under an Emergency Use Authorization — in other words, before it has been fully tested and fully approved. I was the champion of ‘Right to Try’ legislation. A reasonable corollary to that is the right to choose or not to choose treatment. I also support health privacy laws and will vigorously oppose any efforts by the government to utilize or impose vaccine passports.”