Mojo - March 2010

Howard Dean and Biologics

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 12:55 PM EST

Monday's New York Times op-ed page features a piece by two experts at Duke University's "Program on Global Health and Technology Access" arguing against 12-year patent protection for ultraexpensive "biologic" drugs. Some highlights:

EVERYONE knows that an easy way to save money on medicines is to buy generics rather than brand-name drugs. Makers of generics estimate that over the past decade they have saved the American health care system about $734 billion. Yet, we continue to spend more on drugs — in part because of the increasing use of so-called biologic medicines, which cost, on average, 22 times as much as ordinary drugs. In 2008, 28 percent of sales from the pharmaceutical industry’s top 100 products came from biologics; by 2014, that share is expected to rise to 50 percent....

The proposals before Congress would protect biologic medicines for 12 years after their approval by the Food and Drug Administration — that would be seven more years of market exclusivity than conventional drugs have.....

[Just six biologics] consume 43 percent of the drug budget for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor visits and outpatient services.

There's not much reason—other than gobs of lobbyist cash—to extend biologics protection for seven years beyond what is offered to conventional drugs. (Actually, the drug industry is hoping that 12-year biologics protection will help it push for 14-year conventional protection—really.) But as Time's Michael Scherer and Karen Tumulty reported in October, two progressive heroes seem to be on the wrong side of this debate:

Among the biologics industry's most high-profile advocates has been former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who is consulting for a law firm that has a deep roster of biologics clients. In July he wrote an Op-Ed in the Hill newspaper arguing for a "commonsense and fair approach" to give biologics companies at least 12 years of exclusivity. ("I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe it," Dean, a physician, said in an interview.) His former campaign manager Joe Trippi echoed Dean's views on a Huffington Post blog without disclosing that he had been paid by BIO to create two Web campaigns. (He also says his views predated his paycheck.)

It's worth keeping all this in mind when Dean warns that passing health care reform would hurt Democrats.

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Kristol Wiggling Out of Liz Cheney's Mess?

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 12:23 PM EST

Now that Liz Cheney is being slammed by her fellow Republicans and conservatives—Ken Starr, Ted Olson, John Bellinger III, and more—for having mounted a vicious attack on lawyers who performed pro bono work for suspected terrorist detainees, Bill Kristol, her partner-in-slime, is trying to wiggle his way out of the controversy.

Kristol, the neocon godfather, is one of three board members of Keep America Safe, the group that released an ad decrying these lawyers and questioning their loyalty to the United States. That ad triggered a firestorm of criticism, and most of the incoming fire was directed at Liz Cheney, the outfit's chairperson. But on Countdown on Friday night, I noted that Kristol also ought to be held accountable for this Cheneyesque crusade. And on Sunday afternoon he took the time to write a post for his Weekly Standard in which he derided the notion that the ad was an attack. He suggested that the spot merely had raised the issue of "whether Congress and the public are simply entitled to know who these lawyers are, and the question of whether former pro bono lawyers for terrorists should be working on detainee policy for the Justice Department."

This is too disingenuous and dumb to be effective spin. The spot—shot in the ominous style of a scare-'em ad—refers to the Justice Department as the "Department of Jihad." And as a ghostly image of Osama bin Laden moves behind silhouettes of these lawyers, the narrator asks, "Whose values do they share?"

It isn't subtle. Keep America Safe is not in this for the sake of  transparency. The group was angling to kick-start a witch hunt. And that's why so many former Republican officials have been willing to go on record criticizing—some using sharp terms—the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. Liz Cheney obviously miscalculated, and the ever-savvy Kristol is looking for cover. But his case—just like the WMD argument he made for war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003—is not supported by the facts. He's stuck with Liz Cheney in a very-disclosed and very-exposed location.

And the Best Picture Metaphor for Obama Goes To....

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 10:32 AM EST

Are you yet getting sick of the current Washington narrative? By that I mean the story of As the Rahm Turns. In my PoliticsDaily.com column, I note that all the DC hubbub about the White House chief of staff—is he at odds with the rest of Obama's crew, and is he mounting an inside-the-court PR blitz to protect his own backside?—misses a key point. The president calls the shots.

Liberals disappointed with the Obama presidency—particularly its failure so far to adopt sweeping health care reform containing a public option (let alone pushing for a single-payer system)—seem to have spent too much time in James Cameron's fantasy world:

Yes, he lent Rahm Emanuel one of the "link" machines from Avatar that allows the White House chief of staff to "drive" another being -- and that being happens to be President Barack Obama.

But Emanuel's fans in town—who are in unseemly fashion chatting up reporters—appear to believe the problem is that actually the president is not following Emanuel's instincts.

All this Rahm-pondering aside, I note,

If anyone needs an Oscar movie reference, perhaps a better one would be The Hurt Locker, the Best Picture. In that film, Sgt. 1st Class William James is part of a bomb-disposal team in Iraq, but he's the only member of the crew who has to confront the toughest choices: which wire to cut, when to take a chance, when to run. That's Obama. There's plenty of story in the tale of a powerful White House chief of staff, but if anyone is looking for someone to hold accountable for the current state of the Obama presidency, it's the star of the production.

Then again, maybe the president is the director. I don't know. But in Washington he sure is the king of the world.

Dodd, Fed Scourge, Makes U-Turn

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 8:10 AM EST

Despite rampant criticism and open attacks on its leader, the Federal Reserve could emerge a winner in the Senate's long slog toward financial-reform legislation. The latest news from the Senate banking committee's ongoing negotiations, led by chairman Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), is that the Fed will retain oversight power for the nation's biggest banks—the 23 institutions with more than $100 billion in assets—according to a Sunday night report from the Financial Times (sub req'd). Banks with less than $100 billion in assets will potentially fall under the oversight of a new, centralized super-regulator, which would mean a victory for Dodd who included a super-regulator in his November reform draft. Among the losers would be the Fed's branch banks spread throughout the nation, whose authority right now includes mid-sized banks. 

For Dodd, the move to keep big-bank authority with the Fed and its embattled chairman, Ben Bernanke, marks a startling reversal. Last year, Dodd was the scourge of the Fed, calling its consumer-protection and bank-oversight performance in the run-up to the crisis "an abysmal failure." His apparent U-turn on the Fed's role is undoubtedly a conciliatory move to win bipartisan support with his main negotiating partner, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has backed giving more power to the Fed. Doing so, however, will rankle consumer advocates who have lambasted the Fed for its utter failure to prevent the subprime mortgage collapse and the global financial meltdown.

The Financial Times story included additional updates on the state of the Senate's talks:

A new "resolution" regime to deal with failing, but systemically important, institutions would allow the government to wind up a company quickly to avoid contagion spreading through the financial system.

But in a concession to Republican fears about giving government too much power over business, a bankruptcy judge would provide checks and balances.

The regime is designed to prevent a repeat of the costly bail-out of AIG or the damaging bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

But Democrats have had to come up with a complex system that incorporates a role for the judiciary to meet Republican concerns, while also limiting the time and scope of a judge’s intervention to prevent an unruly process that infects the entire financial system.

If these latest leaked reports are true, then that means the Senate talks are nearing their conclusion, with the fate of a consumer-protection agency one of the few remaining hurdles. Expect to see a bill emerge out of the banking committee sometime this week.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 8, 2010

Mon Mar. 8, 2010 8:00 AM EST

war photo 030710

Sgt. 1st Class James Lee provides aerial security from the rear door of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter over the Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, in Feb. 24, 2010. Photo via the US Army.

Corn on Countdown: Liz Cheney Crosses the Line with "Al Qaeda Seven"

Fri Mar. 5, 2010 10:27 PM EST

David Corn joined guest host Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss Liz Cheney's inflammatory assertions that Obama's Justice Department is aligned with Al-Qaeda.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Could Low Turnout Torpedo the Dems in 2010?

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 4:42 PM EST

The biggest headache for the Democrats in 2010 might not be insurgent Republicans, but the party's own disspirted supporters. With enthusiasm flagging amid the liberal base, low turnout could threaten Democratic candidates’ chances in swing states, even in electorates where the party still has a lot of support. In North Carolina, Public Policy Polling has found that the big problem for Democrats isn’t that voters have turned their backs on the party, but that a major chunk of voters simply aren’t planning to show up to the polls for this year's midterm elections.

According to PPP, only about 6 percent of Obama voters in North Carolina were planning to vote Republican for the state legislature races. It’s a relatively small number, considering that Obama carried the state in 2008*—and by comparison, some 4 percent of McCain backers in the state say they’re planning to vote Democratic.

The real obstacle may lie in convincing Democratic supporters to actually come out to the polls. “Where 11% more Democrats than Republicans voted in North Carolina in 2008, at this point only 6% more Democrats than Republicans are planning to vote in 2010,” PPP says. “That may not seem like a huge change but it's certainly enough to flip a lot of close races.” While lower turnout is endemic during any midterm year, it’s a particular concern for Democrats right now given their dispirited base and the reenergized Republicans.

Steve Driehaus Had Better Vote for Health Care Reform Now

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 2:21 PM EST

Via Politico, I see that Vice President Joe Biden is headed to Ohio to raise money for Rep. Steve Driehaus, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights. As you may recall, Driehaus was one of Rep. Bart Stupak's (D-Mich) biggest supporters during the fight over the addition of Stupak's anti-abortion amendment to the House health care reform bill.

Driehaus has been repeatedly mentioned as one of the so-called "Stupak 12"—a group of anti-abortion Dems who voted for the House health care reform bill in November but have reportedly vowed to vote against the final package unless their preferred anti-abortion language is included. But as I've repeatedly noted, the Stupak 12's demand is impossible to meet. The abortion language can't be changed under the majority-vote "reconciliation" process Democrats need to use to pass fixes to the health care bill through the Senate. Driehaus's website currently displays this statement:

Last fall, I worked to pass legislation to bring needed changes to our health care system, while putting in place strict prohibitions on the use of taxpayer funding for abortion. The House will soon take up this issue again. When there is a final piece of legislation, I will take the time needed to review the bill and determine how I will vote. However, my overall position is unchanged. Health care reform is critically important for our nation, and I support efforts to enact changes to our system - if those changes are done the right way. But I'm firm in my commitment that I won't support legislation that provides federal funding for abortion.

Never mind that the bill in question doesn't provide federal funding for abortion. Stupak and Driehaus and their allies apparently believe it does, and they seem very willing to scuttle the health care bill because of it.

So why should the Vice President be raising money for someone who won't vote for the administration's signature legislative priority? The President told progressives this week that if health care reform fails, it could destroy his presidency. It might be different if Driehaus had voted against health care reform the first time around, or if he was from an incredibly Republican-leaning seat. But Driehaus's district went for Obama over McCain by eleven points.

Even if Driehaus votes against reform this time, and the bill goes down, he's going to get attacked for voting for the bill the first time around. Effective political parties at least try to use what leverage they do have to achieve their legislative priorities. The Democrats already showed how bad they are at politics by letting Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a sure "yes" vote, retire before the final vote. Faced with a similar situation, Republicans forced Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), a sure "no," to stay on a bit longer. That's how it's done, folks. Biden shouldn't waste his time raising money for Driehaus unless Driehaus is willing to pony up and vote for health care reform.

Reid Still Confident on Financial Reform

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 2:19 PM EST

Despite the glacial pace of financial-reform negotiations in the Senate—the banking committee, led by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), was expected to release its bill this week to no avail—the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remains confident Dodd and his GOP counterparts will still pass comprehensive financial reform. In response to a question on whether Reid feared the window of opportunity was closing to pass financial regulation, a Reid spokeswoman told Mother Jones Reid "is not" worried the chance to reform Wall Street is passing. "Years of reckless actions by Wall Street put our economy on the brink of collapse, and the American people are paying the price," the Reid spokeswoman added. "It is essential that we bring reform to our financial system to ensure that this does not happen again. We look forward to the Banking Committee completing its work to move this legislation forward."

While the Majority Leader has largely been trying to round up enough Senate support to pass comprehensive health-care reform, he has voiced support for Dodd's effort to overhaul Wall Street. Last month, Reid told reporters that he was "comfortable we are going to be able to do a really good financial regulation bill." Reid's support comes as outsiders fear the chance to rein in Wall Street and its risky behaviors is slipping away, that the memory of 2008 and 2009's financial crisis is already fading in public's memory and the urgency that accompanies every crisis is dwindling with it. "Meaningful regulatory change is urgent now because this is the window of opportunity," says Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund economist. "If that window closes, we're asking for trouble."

Shocker: Cantor Exploits Unemployment

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 1:32 PM EST

In response to the latest unemployment numbers—which showed unemployment holding steady at 9.7 percent, but with 36,000 people having lost their jobs last month—House minority whip Eric Cantor declared:

Today’s jobs report is the latest warning that the threat of oppressive regulations and health care mandates from Washington, as well as skyrocketing deficits and tax increases, are actively preventing job creation.

So Cantor's blaming this job loss on President Barack Obama's push for health care reform. But here's a question for him. In late 2008 and early 2009—when there was no effort under way to repair the nation's troubled health care system—the economy was shedding several hundred thousand jobs a month. So if those massive unemployment numbers weren't connected to health care reform, why are the more modest job losses tied to this effort? Might the answer have something to do with...political convenience?