The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

Last Night, Perry Couldn’t Inoculate Himself From Attacks


I think the story of last night’s debate is that Rick Perry entered two very predictable fights on his Gardasil vaccination policy and illegal immigration and didn’t quite give a through, detailed, convincing defense on either issue.

A quick summary of the Gardasil controversy from last month:

Religious conservatives in Texas were stunned in 2007 when Republican Rick Perry became the first governor in the country to order young girls to get a vaccine against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer.

The vaccine would encourage promiscuity, according to many conservatives, who had long supported Perry’s views against abortion and same-sex marriage.

It soon emerged that Perry was close to one of the lobbyists who was pushing for the order and who worked for the vaccine’s New Jersey-based manufacturer. That lobbyist, Mike Toomey, had served as Perry’s chief of staff and has since helped found a super PAC aimed at boosting Perry’s bid for the presidency.

Now Perry, who long defended the vaccine mandate, has reversed his position on the issue as he launches his GOP presidential bid, calling the order “a mistake” and saying he agrees with the Texas legislature’s decision to overturn it.

“The fact of the matter is that I didn’t do my research well enough to understand that we needed to have a substantial conversation with our citizenry,” Perry told reporters on the campaign trail over the weekend.

…The federal government approved Gardasil in June 2006, and medical authorities began recommending that all girls get the shots at ages 11 and 12, before they are likely to be sexually active. Boys have since been added to the recommendations as well.

Merck launched a multimillion-dollar lobbying and marketing effort to encourage that the vaccine — priced at about $360 for an entire treatment — be made mandatory for schoolgirls. But anti-vaccination groups and many religious conservatives pushed back, citing health and morality concerns, while Merck came under fire for its aggressive tactics.

I’m not quite so sure that the main objection was the concern that the vaccine would prompt promiscuity than concerns about parental consent and side effects of a new drug being used on every schoolgirl in Texas. As RealClearPolitics’ Tom Bevan laid out:

Perry’s attempt to frame his action as both an urgent public health necessity and the work of a “pro-life” politician failed to dissuade those who felt he had shoved this vaccine down the throats of the public without a full airing of the potential benefits, costs and long-term health implications of the drug…

In fact, two years later the National Vaccine Information Center issued a report raisingserious questions over the harmful side effects of the drug. A few months after that, an editorial on Gardasil in the Journal of the American Medical Association declared that “serious questions regarding the overall effectiveness of the vaccine” needed to be answered and that more long-term studies were called for.

When pressed on this issue, Perry keeps returning to his noble goals. He probably had the very best of intentions in pursuing this policy. But we all know which road is paved with those.

In the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

When they discussed Rick Perry’s regretted and repealed policy on mandatory vaccines for HPV, [Bachmann] came alive and ripped into the Texas Governor, and seemed to have the crowd on her side:

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just wrong,” Bachmann said. “Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan.”

The Minnesota congresswoman went even further, accusing Perry of handing out favors to a company, Merck, represented by his former top aide, Mike Toomey.

“There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate,” Bachmann said. “The governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company.”

Perry pushed back hard against Bachmann, but seemed flustered as the attacks on HPV intensified.

“At the end of the day, this was about trying to stop a cancer,” Perry said. “At the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life.”

When Bachmann suggested he mandated the vaccine as a favor to a campaign contributor, Perry responded: “I raised $30 million and if you’re saying I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

Bachmann shot back: “I’m offended for all the little girls and parents who didn’t have a choice.”

After the last debate, I wrote:

Perry’s decision — quickly rescinded — to mandate the vaccination of Texas schoolgirls for HPV, a decision which came up Wednesday night, appears to be an epic mental pratfall. We all have them, but it’s worrisome to have one in a decision that strikes such an emotional chord and that seems so basic in its relation to civil liberties. Another comment by Perry — that he’ll do “whatever it takes to preserve human life” — feels a little too casual in its dismissal of balancing the costs and benefits. A 45-mile-per-hour speed limit would help preserve human life. So would confiscating every steak knife in the country. 

Like I said, at the debate site, it looked like the crowd was with Bachmann (and Santorum jumped in as well). If my Twitter feed reflects the rest of the Republicans watching (and it may very well be skewed in one way or the other), the party splits almost evenly on whether Perry was just momentarily misguided, and his rivals are making a mountain out of a molehill, or whether he completely botched a basic issue of parents rights.

Maybe I’ll feel completely different by midday Tuesday, but my initial impression is that Perry suffered some damage Monday night. On vaccines, Bachmann hit him; on immigration, his policy in Texas sounds awfully similar to the DREAM Act supported by President Obama.

Byron York saw it too: “In the hours before the Republican debate in Tampa Monday night, political insiders asked just two questions. Would Rick Perry knock out Mitt Romney?  Or would Mitt Romney knock out Rick Perry?  As it turned out, the question they should have asked was, What if Romney and Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich got together to gang up on Perry?  That’s exactly what happened onstage at the Florida Fairgrounds, with the candidates hitting Perry hard on Social Security, his jobs record in Texas, his decision to mandate a vaccination for young girls, and immigration.  When it was over, Perry had not been knocked out, but he was definitely wobbly on his feet… After blows from all around [on illegal immigration], Perry was reduced to saying, “The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way.” It wasn’t a popular line in the room. By that point, Perry had become a candidate the voters did not see in last week’s debate at the Reagan Library. He was at times hesitant, forced off his game by Romney, Bachmann, Paul, and Santorum, and perhaps in need of more preparation.  It’s likely he’ll do a little more studying for the next debate, presented by Fox News, on September 22.”

Like I said, at least half of my feed seemed incredulous that Perry’s frontrunner status could be jeopardized by a four-year-old decision about a vaccine. But clearly, something about that issue hits a chord with a lot of voters, and if Perry wants to run strong from here on out, he’ll need a comprehensive and definitive way to explain his decisions on this beyond how much he wants to fight cancer.

Tags: Michele Bachmann , Rick Perry


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