ENPR: Week of May 9, 2007

May 9, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 10a
  • Senate effectively kills drug reimportation
  • Patrick Kennedy, a year after crashing his car on Capitol Hill, testifies on drug rehab
  • Allen to challenge Collins in Maine
  • In GOP debate, Romney opens self to criticism over Massachusetts insurance plan
  • Thompson’s speech in Orange County departs significantly from a better, more concise prepared text


  1. The comment by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) that progress should be shown in Iraq by September was seized upon by Democrats to show that the Republican leadership, in effect, was setting deadlines and benchmarks decried by President George W. Bush. In fact, the Republican desire to leave Iraq is overwhelming.
  2. This week may decide whether reconciliation will be part of the budget resolution. If it is, that will enable Senate Democrats to pass upper-bracket tax increases without needing to get a 60 percent super-majority.
  3. The “winners” of the first two debates are presumed to be Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But there are almost constant debates and cattle shows between now and the February 5 super-duper primary
  4. Last week’s visit to Capitol Hill by Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe to convince congressional Democrats to pass aid and trade legislation was described by insiders as “catastrophic.” Influenced by human rights and protectionist lobbies, Democrats had no restraint in dismissing a rare U.S. ally in South America. That constitutes a victory for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and suggests that President Bush is not the only one in Washington lacking diplomatic skill.


Drug Reimportation: One of the prickliest subjects on Capitol Hill was effectively kicked down the road when the Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). The underlying measure would allow U.S. citizens to buy drugs from foreign countries, which tend to be cheaper since many of those countries, particularly Canada, impose price controls. Pharmaceutical companies have been forced by this situation to make nearly all of their profits on new drugs in the United States.

Cochran’s amendment requires the government to certify the safety of reimported drugs. This effectively kills the bill, since such certification simply cannot be done. The issue of reimportation cuts across party lines in Congress, but the Bush Administration is strongly opposed. At best, the practice would reduce prices in the United States and force a price increase in other countries, which would react in order to prevent shortages. This would eventually lead to an equilibrium at which Americans would lose the incentive to buy the foreign drugs. At worst, it could eliminate incentives for pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs.

Trade: The issue of international trade recently produced an internal Democratic confrontation between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Rangel downplays the disagreement, but multiple sources confirm that Democrats and Republicans had an agreement before Pelosi slowed it down.

Rangel had succeeded in negotiating a compromise trade bill with Republicans on his committee, led by Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) and the Bush Administration. But Pelosi is attuned to the wishes of Democratic caucus members, who are being pushed by organized labor to effectively bar imports produced by lower-wage labor.

Rangel’s moderate position faces a challenge within the Ways and Means Committee from Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Trade subcommittee. Levin’s Detroit-area district contains United Auto Workers members and pensioners who want trade protection.

Health: There was some irony and tension in the room as Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee in a little-noticed hearing on drug rehabilitation and mental-health treatment.

Last May, Kennedy checked himself into rehab after crashing his car into a vehicle barrier on Capitol Hill. Kennedy was visibly impaired, according to the police report, but it is unclear by what. He claimed at the time that his sleep aid had caused him to get up and drive in his sleep. Others claimed to have seen him at a local bar earlier. Either way, the addiction to prescription drugs that he cited as his reason for rehab was apparently not the drug that caused the accident, after which Kennedy claimed that he was on his way to the House to cast a vote (at 2:45 in the morning). There was also a police cover-up exposed in a subsequent investigation.

Kennedy has worked on mental health issues for a long time. But because of the incident last year, he is also viewed as a pioneer in the use of rehab to escape media attention for months when controversy strikes. In fact, the crash was all but forgotten when Kennedy finally emerged from rehab. This made Kennedy an odd choice as a witness for this particular hearing on the integration of mental health and drug addiction care.

After Kennedy, the rehab tactic was later used by former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) to flee attention after his sexually explicit messages to congressional pages were revealed. The same tactic was used last July by actor Mel Gibson, who was drunk when he burst into anti-Semitic tirade during a traffic stop.

In each case, going into rehab created some level of sympathy for the perpetrator. After Kennedy’s short and wonkish oral testimony, Republicans on the committee had no questions, and reporters stayed away from the topic.

Senate 2008

Colorado: After the surprise departure from the race of former Rep. Scott McInnis (R), former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R) appears to be the only one willing to take up the mantle for the GOP in this year’s Senate race.

Rep. Mark Udall (D), the putative Democratic nominee, begins with an enormous financial advantage with more than $1.5 million in the bank. Colorado has been trending Democratic, and the loss of the seat of retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R) would signal another step in this ominous trend for the GOP that already includes the loss of the other Senate seat in 2004, the loss of the governorship, the loss of former Rep. Bob Beauprez‘s seat in the Denver suburbs last year, and the loss of both chambers of the state legislature.

Maine: Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) is surely a more formidable challenger to Sen. Susan Collins (R) than her 2002 opponent, Chellie Pingree (D). Collins is a moderate who is nonetheless the more conservative of Maine’s two Republican senators. She is beloved in Maine, but after the defeat of so many Northeastern Republican moderates in 2006 — including Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) — there is doubt as to whether they can long survive.

Allen already had more than $800,000 on hand to Collins’s $1.2 million in campaign money as of the end of March. Her fundraising clip was much faster in the first quarter, but this will change as soon as he makes his official announcement over the Memorial Day weekend. Collins is already being attacked by outside groups on television for opposing an Iraq withdrawal timetable.

Minnesota: With no serious top-tier candidate emerging to challenge freshman Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Republicans here are breathing a sigh of relief. Coleman caught a break with the prospect that comedian and radio talk-show host Al Franken will likely be his Democratic opponent for re-election next year. Coleman will benefit from the presence of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis next year.

Minnesota went largely blue in the 2006 elections, and the overriding Republican national outlook for 2008 is poor. However, Coleman leads Franken, a polarizing figure, in the few polls taken so far, and Coleman’s favorables are much better than those of the comedian. Wealthy lawyer Mike Ciresi is also seeking the Democratic nomination, but Franken is equally well financed and is a favorite among anti-Bush activists.

Oregon: Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, considered vulnerable for re-election from the blue state of Oregon, also was fortunate in losing his toughest potential Democratic foe. Rep. Pete DeFazio (D) decided instead to stay in the House, where he is chairman of an important Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.

Smith’s fundraising has been excellent, leaving him with $2.8 million on hand at the end of the last quarter. His poll numbers had been problematic, but he has deliberately and vocally distanced himself from President Bush on the Iraq War, which is likely to help him quite a bit. Also helpful will be the non-aggression pact he has with his colleague, popular Sen. Ron Wyden (D), who will basically sit on his hands during the election.

DeFazio holds down a very competitive district, and so his decision to stay in the House makes life a bit easier for Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman Christopher Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Democrats would like to entice Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) into this race, but his small war chest (about $400,000) and his majority position on the Ways and Means Committee could deter him from taking such a risk. Smith has been targeted before to no effect, but Oregon has become much bluer since his 2002 re-election. Republicans, already staring down a Senate year in which they will likely lose seats, would love to have this race taken off the map.

Texas: Rep. Nick Lampson (D), who is definitely endangered next year in the very, very Republican district of former Rep. Tom DeLay (R), is strongly considering a run at Sen. John Cornyn (R). There is probably no other Democrat in the state who could do as well against Cornyn, who is criticized by some for not visiting the state often enough. Cornyn has worked vigorously to keep a high profile, however, by becoming involved in many issues and enthusiastically making radio and television appearances to argue the Republican case.

Democrats hold forth hope in the fact that Cornyn’s favorable rating is below 50 percent, but that is typical for a senator four years into his term. The fact is that the state’s Democratic Party is emaciated. Even the nation’s strongly negative feelings about President Bush are of limited effect in his home state. After Lampson, the next closest thing to a serious challenger would be former Comptroller John Sharp (D), who has lost two statewide races for lieutenant governor.

President 2008

Republican candidates had their turn to debate last week, giving rise to several revelations about their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Giuliani: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) had the worst performance of any candidate in the Republican debate. Despite months of preparation on how to address the abortion issue, he was all over the map, very uncertain of himself. His shoulder-shrugging answer that the repeal of Roe v. Wade would be “okay” sounded quite flippant — after years of defending the decision, it was a poor answer, given as though the topic were not serious. His repeated statement that he “hates” abortion is getting old. His answer on public funding for abortion made no sense. His answer on the influence of Christian conservatives effectively amounted to a duck.

Giuliani can certainly learn to give better answers, but his poor performance in debate corresponded with a drop in the polls. He is currently at his lowest point of the year with 25 percent in CNN’s poll, although he remains the frontrunner. His problems in the coming months will likely come from places other than his failure to give good answers on abortion. For example, a video is currently circulating on the Internet in which Giuliani praises his wife — a controversial figure for a number of reasons — as an expert on biological weapons (she previously worked in pharmaceutical sales). His ties to Bernard Kerik remain potentially problematic as well.

McCain: For much of the debate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) looked like he was trying to give a stump speech instead of answering questions. In fact, at one point, the audience nearly burst into applause because McCain left them little choice. He was speaking so forcefully that he would have looked foolish if his speech ended in silence.

McCain did not bomb in the debate as Giuliani did. At times he shone, as with his joke about congressional spending and drunken sailors. But he appeared uncomfortable on stage and angry most of the time. His gestures evinced a man in extreme pain. His declaration that he would go “to the gates of Hell” to catch terrorist Osama bin Laden sounded ridiculous. On the other hand, McCain was strong on spending and earmarks. His idea for a $3,000 health insurance tax credit will have strong bipartisan appeal, should he become the GOP nominee.

McCain’s problems have led to internal reorganization of his campaign, which has included the firing of his finance director. Political Director Michael Dennehy recently stepped down to spend more time with his family — usually Washington-ese for either “I’ve been demoted/fired” or “I am resigning out of frustration.”

Currently, McCain’s advisors are putting on their best face, taking consolation in his continued (but mostly slim) leads in early states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa. They are optimistic about the organizations they have in place in those states. But such early leads tend to evaporate in presidential politics.

Romney: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) probably had the best performance of any of the major candidates. For the most part, he departed from his stilted, staccato speaking style and sounded confident and knowledgeable. Romney finally is in double-digits in the new CNN poll, but still trails the non-candidate, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).

Romney opened himself up to attacks, however, by praising the health care system he instituted in Massachusetts. In the past, Romney has qualified his support for the bill, which effectively imposes a tax penalty on those who do not buy health insurance. He has always said before that he had to accept many Democratic provisions that he opposed. But his unqualified praise for the program during the debate is surely premature. Key parts of the program are just going into effect this month, and if it proves to be a disaster, he is setting himself up to take a fall.



Fred Thompson: Absent from the debate was the most discussed man outside the race — former Sen. Thompson. Thompson appeared the following night to address the Orange County Lincoln Club in a wealthy area of Southern California.

  1. Thompson, who is not a declared candidate but will likely become one next month, has benefited from conservative dissatisfaction with the candidates currently in the Republican field. They find Giuliani too liberal, Romney too untrustworthy and McCain too unreliable. Thompson has risen effortlessly, without spending a dime, to tie or even pull ahead of those top three candidates. Without lifting a finger, he has won straw polls in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Oklahoma and California.
  2. Thompson’s speech was disappointing, particularly in its delivery. Indeed, the substance of what he said was impressive. But Thompson managed, in a 4,500-word address, to say much less clearly what he would have said in the 1,600-word prepared text excerpt his staff released prior to the speech. The pre-released text received rave reviews from conservatives who read it on the Internet, but attendees at the speech in California were underwhelmed.
  3. The prepared text contained the simple and concise red-meat language that Republicans want to hear right now. The prepared text quoted Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a conservative stalwart, and was heavy on the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan. The actual delivered speech meandered through many of the same ideas in a dull, cliché-ridden and verbose performance. It was not well received at the dinner itself, if crowd reactions are any indication. Thompson had trouble with the podium microphone as his low, conversational tones faded in and out. Thompson worried that the long Lincoln Club program preceding his speech may have turned off the audience, but he may have been the one who lost his enthusiasm. Naturally, expectations were high to begin with. The puzzling part is that an actor would fail in the delivery — the very area in which he should be most likely to succeed.
  4. The excitement aroused in melancholy Republican ranks by the politician-commentator-actor will not be doused by one lackluster performance. Obviously, Thompson will need some preparation if he really wants to run. The deeper concern by some supporters is whether the tepid reaction in Orange County will shake what had seemed his clear resolve to make the race.
  5. Among the best parts of his speech were his reference to “malaise” — an unmistakable reference to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign — and his statement that as the world’s problems grow bigger, political leaders “are getting smaller.” Both of these are subtle, implicit criticisms of President Bush that are nonetheless appropriately gentle.
  6. Thompson is considering a different kind of presidential candidacy, the sort that sees him raising small contributions over the Internet and staying several days at a time in Iowa instead of zipping in and out. But his debut speech here as a putative presidential candidate was ordinary. It will be revealing how much he changes his approach in forthcoming non-candidate speeches to Republican gatherings in Virginia and Connecticut.

Robert D. Novak