How vaccine politics could play out

I’m sending this email from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where we’ve come for Aunt Mimi’s 70th high school reunion, a gathering of the Hazleton High School class of ‘51. (If you missed the email earlier this year about how Mimi’s Hazleton roots are entangled with Joe Biden’s, that’s here and it’s a fun one. Mimi is pictured here with her classmates top-right.)


Republicans are already saying they will sue to stop Joe Biden’s new workplace vaccine mandate -- which, to be entirely clear, is not a vaccine mandate, because it allows people to take a weekly test in lieu of the vaccine. They may be successful, because courts have generally blocked OSHA from doing much of anything under emergency orders if companies complain. But the real value in the announcement could be that it triggers a surge in vaccinations. The mandate doesn’t need to be in place forever, it only needs to be in place long enough to make a dent in the unvaccinated population. There are currently some 80 million unvaccinated, but millions of those have already been infected, so have antibodies, and, devastatingly, some 10,000 of them are dying every week. 

That’s a number that’s hard to get our heads around, and it doesn’t include the downstream consequences of jammed-up ICUs, emergency rooms and surgery tables. Free advice from yours truly: this is not a good time to have a stroke or a heart attack.

It may be crass to talk about the politics of a plan intended to end a situation where 10,000 people are dying every week, but this is a politics newsletter, so: There is obviously some risk of blowback, and it’ll be interesting to watch the California recall results with that in mind. But slightly longer term, there is a real chance this winds up being smart politics for Democrats. If all you did was watch cable, you’d think the country is divided 50-50 on the vaccine, but people are overwhelmingly supportive of the vaccine, and strong majorities are even in favor of mandates (even without a testing exemption). It just happens that the anti-vaxx side is extremely loud, and the media’s need to balance its coverage creates an illusion of a greater divide than truly exists. If Biden’s mandate, which came with a scolding of the unvaccinated, triggers the most extreme anti-vaxxers to become the loudest voices of the GOP resistance to the vaccine, Republicans run the risk of isolating and marginalizing themselves. If -- and this is a massive if, given the variable of the variants out there -- the numbers are waning and restrictions are easing by next summer, then being anti-vaxx will look terrible, and being anti-mask and anti-lockdown will be boring, because there won’t be mask mandates or lockdowns, so there’ll be nothing to grab on to. But like I said, lambda or mu might have something to say about that. 

Meanwhile, Biden is pushing ahead with his $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which now includes major pieces of the PRO Act and also plans to include elements of immigration reform. A provision that just cleared the Education and Labor Committee in the House is particularly noteworthy: The measure says that nobody will pay more than 7% of their income toward child care, which will be a game changer to many middle and even upper middle class parents. Centrists had attempted to make the benefit less generous and means-test it more strictly, but House progressives, through the Congressional Progressive Caucus, threatened to take the whole thing down if it was watered down, and the centrists caved. Committee Chairman Bobby Scott acknowledged to Politico the pressure is what did it. “I believe that the underlying bill is more than generous in terms of benefits,” Scott said. “And the reason that I’m giving credence to this amendment is because, without it, the members of the committee are threatening to jeopardize the entire bill.” 

While progressives are strengthening the bill from the left by threatening to take it down, Joe Manchin and a handful of others are working to weaken it by doing the same. Manchin loves being in the middle of these negotiations, and with heightened visibility comes more scrutiny. At The Intercept, we dove into his background as a coal broker. Few people in Washington know that he remains the owner of a significant coal business, one that has netted him some $4.5 million since he came to the Senate. The companies, which he founded in the 1980s when he was a state legislator, are now officially run by his son, Joe Manchin IV, but he remains an owner. That story, by Daniel Boguslaw, is here. 

His daughter, meanwhile, Heather Bresch, has made her own fortune as CEO of Mylan Pharmaceuticals. I published a story this week revealing new evidence that Bresch herself was directly involved in a scheme with Pfizer to corner the EpiPen market, then followed up by eliminating their single-pack EpiPen, forcing customers to buy two, thus doubling revenue. Along the way, she raised prices by more than 500%. 

This week’s podcast takes a long look at Manchin’s career, and features an interview with Stephen Noble Smith, founder of West Virginia Can’t Wait and a 2020 candidate for governor in the state.