When Donald Trump took his 2020 nostalgia tour to Texas over the weekend, he took a pass on making the vaccine pitch that has gotten him booed in several other settings over the past year.
"Mr. Trump notably avoided the word ‘vaccine’ on Saturday, referring only to ‘Operation Warp Speed’—his administration’s effort to produce a vaccine," wrote the New York Times.
Trump made the same omission at a recent Arizona rally just shortly after he accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of being "gutless" for dodging questions about his booster status.
Some advisers had reportedly pushed Trump to position himself so he could take credit for the rapid development of the vaccines—an effort known Operation Warp Speed, as he opted to reference it at the Texas event. Recent polling suggests why that might be politically appealing for Trump beyond his penchant for sheer self-aggrandizement.
This month's Daily Kos/Civiqs survey found that nearly two-thirds of voters believe Trump deserves "a great deal of credit" (39%) or at least "some credit" (24%) for the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Just 35% of respondents said Trump either deserved very little credit or no credit at all for their development.
Crosstabs on the polling showed that beyond the 92% of Republicans who think Trump deserves a great deal/some credit for the vaccines, so do 67% of Independents. So it would be a legit crossover policy win for Trump—except that diehard Trumpers and the MAGA movement viscerally despise any vaccine promotion, even when it comes from Trump himself.
Civiqs’ tracking poll of Trump's favorability rating has likewise picked up a trend showing that Trump’s favorables have ticked down, particularly among Independents, whenever he has publicly promoted vaccines or booster shots.
Trump's advisers have surely noted the same fallout, thus his sudden change of tactics on the vaccines, avoiding them almost entirely rather than tying himself to them.
“I think there was a course correction there and it was pretty apparent,” a former Trump adviser and campaign strategist told Politico. “He probably has to balance the position of whether he wants to separate himself against DeSantis but also do no harm. So there was a course correction, where being against mandates is a very safe position and leaving it to personal choice and personal freedom is the best course.”
Trump's deference to anti-vaxxers is both an admission that vaccine skepticism is now a critical force within the Republican Party and that Trump is no longer in the driver's seat of the MAGA movement, if he ever was.
Instead, just like every other two-bit Republican politician across the country, Trump is now chasing that movement on bended knee.
And just like vaccines have already proven to be challenging for Trump on right, so too will they likely prove for Republicans running in swing districts. The GOP's anti-vaxx strain is now so virulent, that Republicans must bow to it during their primaries while later trying to sound just reasonable enough about the science during the general election.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is already schooling the country in what a nightmare it is to put an anti-science Republican in control of a swingy state in pandemic times.