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The Black and White of Vaccine Politics

By Kevin Kelton

There can be little doubt that President Trump will use the announcement of a coronavirus vaccine breakthrough as an October surprise to try to peel voters away from Joe Biden. He will brag about his role in fast-tracking the process and claim that he alone can get it to the American people in an organized, timely fashion. And with only 50 to 100 million doses available in the initial wave of the rollout, the unspoken truth is that some people will be first in line for the “miracle cure” while millions more are left to wait. And wait. And wait.

But what Democrats should be ready for is the racial wedge issue that a vaccine could become. A real American president would never use life-saving drugs as a cultural wedge issue. But for this president, the temptation to dog whistle to the worst instincts of his base may be too strong.

What happens when Trump and his down-ballot surrogates begin to imply that a Biden-Harris administration would favor high-risk demographics such as blacks and the elderly for the first round of vaccines, leaving other Americans unprotected from the disease? Is Biden ready to respond when Trump wonders aloud if Joe and Kamala would target the those precious life-saving doses to their elite blue state supporters at the expense of hard-working voters in the heartland (i.e., white people)? How do you deny a charge like that?

Biden better be ready to hear Trump drop that loaded accusation in one of the debates. A question about how each candidate plans to implement a vaccine rollout is the perfect moment for Trump to suggest that “some people are saying” Biden would target the first doses to his black and elite coastal supporters as a political reward while leaving “most Americans” (the racist dog whistle) to continue to perish.

Will Biden be caught by surprise? Will he be able to cobble a stronger rebuttal than “that’s poppycock” and “c’mon, man!”

Once those charges are blasted into the public consciousness, all bets are off. You’ll have Tucker Carlson asking, “Who do you want making decisions about whether your family gets vaccinated? King Fauci and Cory Booker?” I can hear Trump’s rabid supporters echoing those thoughts on social media. “Can you really trust white lives to people who think only Black Lives Matter?” 

If the Biden-Harris campaign is smart, they will preempt such an attack by announcing their own rollout plan first. Instead of simply parroting the tired bromide that he’ll turn to the scientists and ethicists to decide (as he’s already said), Biden should release a detailed position paper that explains how his White House would administer the vaccine program and what will be the specific medical criteria for who gets the first wave of inoculations.

A coronavirus vaccine will come in it’s own time, but the presidential candidates better be ready to answer hard questions about what they’ll do with it. The campaign that owns that issue may own the late-breaking voters in November.

It’s clear that Donald Trump will use any tactic at his disposal to win those voters. The only question is, will Joe Biden be prepared.

Kevin Kelton is a cohost of The More Perfect Union podcast and founder of Open Fire Politics.