President Barack Obama unveiled his $4 trillion budget proposal on Monday morning, and there were a number of proposals near and dear to the future of Kentucky and its coal-producing regions.
So naturally Kentucky junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was on radio and television talking about ... vaccinations?
By the time Paul did start talking about Obama's budget, in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel Monday night, he had already lost the news cycle after advocating "freedom" over mandatory vaccines and shushing a female news reporter who challenged his assertions.
He made no mention of Obama's proposed $1 billion spending plan for depressed coal-producing regions of Appalachia.
Calling vaccinations "ultimately a good idea," Paul told CNBC that he chose to stagger immunization shots for his children instead of getting them all at once.
"I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children, who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," said Paul, an ophthalmologist who graduated from Duke University's School of Medicine in 1988. "I'm not arguing that vaccines are a bad idea, I think they're a good thing. But I think parents should have some input. The state doesn't own your children, parents own their children, and it is an issue of freedom."
As Politico noted Tuesday, "the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has studied the alleged relationship between common vaccines like MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and autism and found 'no links' whatsoever."
Meanwhile, more than 100 people in 14 states have become infected with the vaccine-preventable measles virus since Jan. 1, according to the CDC.
Paul's remarks caused a firestorm among Democrats and doctors alike, and they came about five months after Paul weighed in on the Ebola outbreak by intimating that the disease could be contracted at a cocktail party and warning that U.S. troops sent to help contain the outbreak in West Africa could result in a "whole ship full" of soldiers returning to the U.S. with the disease.
It's a no-brainer that both sets of remarks led Democrats to proclaim that not only is the doctor not in, he is out of his mind. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, quickly took to Twitter Monday to draw a clear line on vaccines: "The science is clear: The Earth is round, the sky is blue and vaccines work. Let's protect all our kids."
By late Tuesday afternoon, Paul seemed to have realized his misstep, inviting a New York Times reporter to go with him to get a booster shot for the vaccines he received before going to Guatemala last year.
"Ironic: Today I am getting my booster vaccine. Wonder how the liberal media will report this," Paul tweeted, along with a picture of him getting the shot.
In a statement provided by his staff, Paul said he "did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related — I did not allege causation."
"I support vaccines, I receive them myself and I had all of my children vaccinated," Paul said.
But these are the issues where Paul's efforts to be a different kind of Republican run into trouble, and it will only get worse as the calendar gets closer to the day of the Iowa caucuses.
In libertarian circles, where mistrust of the government, science and media run rampant, Paul's warnings and hedging on vaccinations might well be cheered.
But Paul's success so far — the reason we're talking about another freshman senator running for president — is based on his ability to talk about issues with a libertarian bent in a way that people of all stripes stop and listen.
Striking the same policy position on vaccines as, say, Jenny McCarthy isn't going to achieve the same results.
A Pew Research Center poll released last week showed that only 30 percent of Americans said vaccinations should be a matter of choice, compared to 68 percent who said they should be mandatory.
According to the Kentucky Department for Public Health, a 2013 National Immunization Survey conducted by the CDC found that 89.5 percent of Kentucky children ages 19 to 35 months have had at least one MMR vaccination.
With a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, that puts Kentucky in line with the rest of the country, where about 92 percent have received the same vaccine.
"The benefits of childhood vaccinations far outweigh the risks and protect not only your child but also others in your community," said Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Kentucky law allows parents with religious objections to exempt children from vaccinations required for school or daycare, Midkiff noted.
"Fortunately, most Kentuckians realize the value of immunizations as less than 2 percent of the certificates on file at schools are for immunization exemptions," she said.
The larger issue for Paul is that by making comments that appear to ignore scientific facts, not to mention public opinion, he's inviting the kind of criticism that makes Democrats wish he were the nominee and makes Republicans nervous that he could be.
Paul's positions on privacy and criminal justice reform are enough to get non-traditional Republicans to give him a look. Wading into the vaccination fight is almost a guarantee that the look will either be an eye-roll or a fleeting glance.
As the calendar moves toward 2016, there will be countless other areas — mostly cultural and social — where Paul will have to strike a balance between the crowds that show up to caucus in Iowa and the swing voters who don't show up until November.
If the Republican nomination battle comes down to debate over who is the best candidate to take on Clinton in the fall of 2016, Paul's flair for the controversial could cost him.
Monday might have been a good day for Paul to focus on budgets and coal. Either that, or just shush.