The Gardasil flap is not the sort of thing that would be important in a general election, but does resonate in a primary for several reasons. First is the politics. Perry’s executive order was a significant break with his base of social conservatives, who opposed the forced immunization of pre-teen girls not based on some general anti-vaccine paranoia, but because this particular kind of forced vaccination interfered with parental rights in a sensitive area of sexual morals. There is a legitimate objection to government interference with parents’ right to decide what is best for their children in that realm (that doesn’t arise with respect to smallpox or measles innoculations), and Perry’s imposition of a mandate by executive fiat was relatively tone deaf to those rights. Yes, there was an opt-out, but the presumption was that the State knew best. Perry’s instincts here were all wrong and raise questions about his bona fides.
Second is his “I shouldn’t have gone about it that way” defense. It is weak. It suggests that it was merely a process foul, by circumventing legislative prerogatives. But the conservative objection has little to do with the separation of powers concern — although, as I understand it (and my understanding could be wrong), Perry only took executive action after a bill had stalled in the legislature. The objection was a substantive one.
Third is his attempt to bridge the gap with social conservatives by suggesting that this was a pro-life decision. “I’ll always err on the side of life,” or some such pablum. The problem with that, as others have noted, is that it could be used to justify all sorts of government interference that a President might be interested in — the FDA’s regulation of salt intake or transfats in American’s diets, more stringent environmental regulation by the EPA, and indeed, a national healthcare system. So where is the line for Perry, and how does he distinguish between the benign and the intrusive?
Finally, in an issue that might resonate well beyond the base, Bachmann’s charge that Perry was playing favorites with his former chief of staff’s client, Merck, reinforces charges that he ran a “pay to play” government. Whether those charges or true or not, I have no idea, but as a matter of appearances, it is a charge that would damage Perry greatly if it were to stick.