By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS—Well, at last we Americans now are arguing about something real.
President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates for the federal government and large businesses have provoked a vigorous debate.
This is as it should be.
The questions involved are important ones.
How much power should government have to protect the nation and its citizens? Does that power extend to forcing individuals to make choices about their own bodies and health with which those individuals do not agree?
How far does an individual’s liberty? Does one individual have the right to make a personal choice that could have disastrous and even deadly consequences for those around him or her?
These are big questions—as large as life and liberty, as real as death and taxes—and they ought to be debated.
Some of them will be—must be—answered in court.
Litigation challenging the president’s order that everyone working for the federal government or for a business with more than 100 employees either must be vaccinated or have a weekly COVID test is inevitable. In those legal battles, the judicial branch will do what it should do—balance and weigh the interests involved within the framework of the Constitution.
The ideologues and partisans on both sides of the question who think this will be a slam dunk are mistaken.
The Constitution extends broad protections to individual liberty, but it also grants government immense power—the necessary and proper clause—to protect the country’s citizens and preserve the national interest.
The legal struggle will boil down to a debate over which of those constitutional priorities should prevail in this circumstance.
But the wrangling shouldn’t and won’t be confined just to the courtroom.
It’s important—essential, even—for a free people to have a robust discussion about how they should meet common challenges such as this deadly pandemic.
We should be arguing about where lines must be drawn. About what we owe each other and our country. And about what our fellow citizens and our country never can demand of us.
Because this is what it means to be a self-governing nation.
A free country.
The fact that we are having a debate about something so fundamental is a welcome change from the wrangles and dustups of our recent past.
Many of the disputes that claimed national attention over the past couple decades—phantom hordes of immigrant mobs threatening our southern border, “death panels” that would condemn the sick and the elderly to early graves—weren’t just aimed at dividing us for no good reason.
They weren’t even real.
This debate is real.
And it matters.
It’s interesting, thus far, to see how the argument is playing out and the sides are shaping up.
Corporate America thus far either has supported the president’s mandate or remained silent—which amounts to an endorsement.
There is a reason for that.
Most big businesses want to spare themselves the costs of lost productivity and other drags on the enterprise that the pandemic has brought and continues to bring. But they don’t want to be the enforcers of any requirements that employees be vaccinated or submit to regular testing because that might lead to labor troubles.
Those businesses are more than content—grateful, even—to have Joe Biden be the bad guy.
If they continue to be content and grateful, the slow distancing of corporate America from the Republican Party will continue.
Small businesses, though, are far less enthusiastic about the mandate. They’re even hostile.
They see the president’s order as one more restraint on their one big competitive edge in the marketplace—their freedom of motion and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances and challenges. They believe the mandate will make it harder for them to find and retain good employees in an environment in which labor is a scarce resource becoming even more scarce.
Both these positions—both these concerns—are valid.
In saner times, we might find ways to reconcile them. For much of our history, America’s peculiar genius was for finding productive compromise, ways to allow many people at the table to feel they were walking away winners.
But that seems to be a talent we have lost, or at least misplaced.
This is why we’re going to have a huge argument now.
But at least it’s an argument that matters.
One that’s real.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.