GOP paints Dems as flu villains

By Eric Boehlert
October 28, 2004 5:35PM (UTC)
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The full-page newspaper ad taking aim at the flu vaccine fiasco packs a tough punch:

"It's a national health crisis!" "An epidemic of bad public policy." "Waiting in lines!" "Rationing of basic medicine!"

Another independent group attacking Bush/Cheney? Actually, the ad, which raises an issue the White House would probably like to see fade from the front pages during the final days of the campaign, is paid for by a Republican-friendly group that's trying to blame Democrats -- and their trial lawyer friends -- for scaring off vaccine producers in America and thereby creating the current shortage. Club for Growth, the conservative, and traditionally anti-tax, advocacy group launched the ad Wednesday in the New York Times, as well in a handful of selection states, such as Oklahoma, where the ad was customized to attack Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., who's running for the U.S. Senate. The ads are part of a last-minute barrage, including attacks paid for by the Chamber of Commerce, that portray Democrats as being in the pocket of litigants.


The most obvious target of the campaign is vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, who the Club for Growth ad labels "one of America's most notorious trial lawyers." Edwards has faced that charge from Republicans throughout his political career, and expectations were high when he was picked for the VP slot he'd again come under attack. But a Gallup poll in July found that 67 percent of Americans considered Edwards' experience as a trial lawyer to be a strength, not a weakness. And as BusinessWeek's legal affairs editor observes this week, "the dirt on Edwards is far less impressive than the rhetoric," noting, "Rather than filing class actions, his practice primarily involved representing individuals. Unlike the worst of the plaintiffs' bar, he had real clients, who had genuine injuries, and who appear to have been suing genuine wrongdoers."

Some conservatives see the vaccine crisis as an opening. A recent USA Today poll on the blame game surrounding the flu vaccine shortage found 18 percent of Americans placed a great deal of fault on trial lawyers, while 17 percent fingered Bush. Specifically, the Club for Growth ads claim Democrats, "strong armed" by trial lawyer contributors, stood in the way of Bush-approved legislation that would have shielded vaccine producers from "frivolous lawsuits." Experts agree liability reform plays some role in the vaccine debate, but as Newsweek reports this week, "the biggest obstacle of all" for drug companies is that economically, vaccines are not big money makers (even before anybody is sued), so "profit-conscious drug companies have fled the business in drove in recent years." On Tuesday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., sent a letter to the head of the Food and Drug Administration, accusing the agency of withholding documents that could answer the question. Waxman said he has information that the FDA is delaying delivery of documents requested until after the presidential election.

Still, Club for Growth thinks Carson, the Oklahoma Democrat running even with Republican Tom Coburn in a state that votes overwhelmingly Republican, is to blame. Aside from Carson, there's another Oklahoma Congressman who's probably not too happy about the Club for Growth ad; Republican Ernest Istook. That's because at the bottom of the full-page ad there is a list of every member of Congress Club for Growth says stymied Bush's plan to protect American vaccine producers. The list includes Istook, who, according to the Club for Growth, has pocketed $111,000 worth of campaign contributions from trial lawyers.


One other newsworthy item from the too-close-to-call Carson/Coburn race: On Tuesday Carson picked up the endorsement of the state's four largest Indian tribes, the first time any candidate for the U.S. Senate has accomplished that in Oklahoma, a state where tribes carry special influence. The backing was all the more embarrassing in light of the Monday media advisory put out by Coburn's campaign trumpeting the fact, "leaders of nine Oklahoma tribes will announce their endorsement" for the Republican. But only two tribe leaders showed up for the photo-op, and they represented two of the smaller tribes in the state.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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