Eric Schmitt was for vaccine mandates before he was against them.
Lately, Missouri’s attorney general has positioned himself as the enemy of such mandates in the name of protecting personal freedom. He’s filed lawsuits against mask mandates in St. Louis and Kansas City. He’s run to Fox News to complain about such mandates. He’s called vaccine mandates and vaccine passports the tools of “dictators” and “tyrants.”
As Missouri has topped 10,000 deaths during the coronavirus pandemic and become Ground Zero for the spread of the deadly new delta variant, various government forces — cities, courts, the military, schools — moved to protect their students, soldiers, employees and residents through various vaccination and mask mandates. But Schmitt went the other way, decrying what he calls the “dystopian biomedical security state.”
As a state senator just a few years ago, Schmitt, who is now running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, took the exact opposite view. In fact, so did the entire Republican caucus in the Missouri Senate.
It was 2014, and many state legislatures across the country were concerned about outbreaks of meningitis on college campuses. A couple of college kids had died from such outbreaks. There were only 371 cases of meningococcal disease in 2019, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in part because of what legislatures did in Missouri and elsewhere in 2014. That year, the Missouri Legislature passed a meningitis vaccine mandate for all college students in Missouri who planned to live on campus. The issue was so important that the language ended up being attached to multiple bills, such as Senate Bill 754 and Senate Bill 716. Some of the bills passed unanimously.
Schmitt, as a state senator, voted for the vaccine mandate. So did Gov. Mike Parson, then a senator, and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, who was also in the Senate at the time. Every Democrat voted for the vaccine mandate. Every Republican voted for the vaccine mandate.
It was a different time, remembers Scott Sifton, who was a state senator then and now is running for the Democratic nomination for the same U.S. Senate seat sought by Schmitt.
“This should not be a controversial topic,” Sifton said. “It wasn’t in 2014. I think we need to put public health ahead of politics.”
In 2014, Sifton and Schmitt, both lawyers, sat on the same Veterans Affairs and Health Committee that attached the vaccine mandate to several pieces of legislation.
“There was a determination to pass it,” Sifton remembers.
To live on a college campus in Missouri, you have to show your vaccine passport. That’s the law Schmitt helped pass.
Schmitt and his fellow pro-vaccine-mandate Republicans didn’t stop with just one mandate. Two years later, the CDC was warning of a new strain of meningitis that had been found on some college campuses. So the lawmakers got the pro-vaccine-mandate band back together again and passed another bill that required colleges in Missouri to produce pamphlets warning of the new strain of the deadly bacteria and to encourage students to get the vaccine, even though it was in the early stages of development.
By this time, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, was in the Senate. Lately, Onder has been one of the most vocal Republicans fighting vaccine and mask mandates. But he voted for the bill in 2016, adding to the state’s vaccine mandate for college campuses. So did Schmitt and Parson and every Republican, and every Democrat, in the Senate.
I asked Schmitt, through a spokesman, what changed between 2014 and 2016 and now, when more than 600,000 Americans have died during the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, he has an aversion to vaccine mandates.
“Here we go again — this is now your 39th hit piece against Attorney General Schmitt in the last year and a half,” spokesman Chris Nuelle emailed. “You’ve long suffered from Trump Derangement Syndrome, and it is clear you also suffer from Schmitt Derangement Syndrome. Attorney General Schmitt will continue to fight for the people of Missouri at every step of the way.”
Schmitt, of course, didn’t answer the question. But on Thursday, conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett did. On that day, she returned some sanity to the national conversation by declining to hear a case from Indiana in which Indiana University has decided to require its students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. It’s the right move. It means that the court recognizes that vaccine mandates are legal. They work. They keep society safe. They protect our freedom to be free of infection caused by those who choose to ignore the CDC guidelines and advice.
Missouri’s top elected Republicans, particularly Schmitt and Parson, have, on the other hand, performed lyrical gymnastics to put themselves into a position that directly contradicts the votes they took to protect children just a few years ago.
“I think it’s more dangerous than mere hypocrisy,” Sifton said. “The cost of their tact is measured in lives.”
Instead of quietly leading the state to a place where lives could be saved, Schmitt and Parson and others purposely foment controversy on an issue around which just a few years ago there was unanimous agreement. Now their followers are showing up at St. Louis County Council meetings absurdly demanding proof that COVID-19 even exists.
What’s more dystopian than that?