WASHINGTON -- Last month, in a wholesome tableau in front of the Capitol, Sen. John McCain, Olympian Tara Lipinski and a sea of boisterous children rallied for passage of tobacco legislation, saying it was desperately needed to reduce teen-age smoking.
Nearby, a young man handed out leaflets condemning the bill as a greedy tax grab designed to expand government and enrich lawyers.
"If we could just slow this thing down, we could win," the Americans for Tax Reform volunteer sighed, gazing glumly at the scene before him.
The comment proved prescient. Conservative senators began that day to slow the tobacco juggernaut to a crawl. A torrent of tobacco industry advertising then softened public opinion enough to give Republicans the political cover to kill it.
Once the polling numbers began to turn, it was a matter of time before McCain's $516 billion bill went down for the count.
"My only conclusion can be that the tobacco company ad campaigns had a significant effect," said McCain, an Arizona Republican. "On the talk shows, people were calling in and actually parroting the ads. They didn't mean to. It was like it was seeping in by osmosis."
The mammoth tobacco bill vanished from the Senate floor yesterday after four weeks of acrimonious debate, leaving behind an eerie void, like a noisy house guest who had unexpectedly left town. All that remained was the finger-pointing, the Monday-morning quarterbacking and some quiet talk of trying once again to find a consensus on tobacco control.
"Nothing like the McCain bill is going to pass," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, adding that Congress can combat youth smoking without raising tobacco taxes.
But President Clinton declared yesterday: "It's dead today; it may not be dead tomorrow. I've never quit on anything this important in my life, and I don't intend to stop now. There are too many futures riding on it, and I think, in the end, we will prevail."
That may be wishful thinking, considering the lingering rancor on Capitol Hill and the power wielded by the bill's Republican opponents. Democrats continued to lash out at Republicans, charging in the harshest terms that they had done the bidding of the tobacco industry in exchange for nearly $12 million in campaign donations over the past four years.
"Yesterday, it became entirely clear that, in this merger era that we're in, RJR merged with the GOP," declared Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, referring to R.J. Reynolds, the nation's second-largest tobacco company. "We now have GOP, a full-fledged subsidiary of RJR."
Republicans insisted that they were more in step with public sentiment.
"Americans soured on the legislation when they realized that this was a bill that awarded lawyers fees of $400,000 an hour," said Andrea Andrews, a spokeswoman with the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. "This was not a bill which addressed teen smoking. It was a bill that made lawyers wealthy, and it deserved to die."
The tobacco bill's demise may someday be seen as a textbook case of how to kill a bill that enjoys popular support but no corporate muscle to finance its passage. Three months ago, when Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster, began testing the support of tobacco-control legislation, polls came back 2-to-1 in favor.
But in April, when the industry bolted from the negotiating table, the terrain shifted tectonically. The revenue produced by McCain's tobacco bill originally was to have come from a voluntary industry payment. Without the industry on board, it became a $1.10-per-pack tax.
Declaring war on the bill, the industry took the offensive with a six-week advertising blitz estimated to cost between $40 million and $50 million.
A coalition of tobacco companies produced 10 ads depicting the bill as a tax increase fueled more by Washington's desire to create government programs than by an interest in reducing teen smoking. Those ads, running in up to 50 media markets nationwide, were bolstered by separate campaigns by R.J. Reynolds, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the industry-backed National Smokers Alliance.
The industry ads posted a toll-free number that allowed callers to be patched through immediately to their senators, to send their senators a telegram, or to receive more industry information. More than 270,000 calls came in, and more than half took the tobacco industry up on one of those offers, said Scott Williams, am industry spokesman. Senators were besieged.
"The industry had the advantage because our message was true," Williams insisted, though Clinton called the ads "hooey."
"An ad campaign that's not true won't work," Williams said.
The barrage, costing more than $40 million, was unprecedented. The storied "Harry and Louise" ads run by the insurance industry against Clinton's national health plan cost just $10 million.
"Maybe the industry called in some chits [from Republicans], but that's not what did it," said John Coale, a Washington attorney who helped negotiate the industry's original $368.5 billion settlement with 40 states unveiled a year ago. "It was $40 million in unanswered ads. Unanswered ads change things."
By last week, Lombardo said, his polling had come back 2-to-1 against the legislation. The atmosphere in conservative circles had become so hostile that leaders of the Christian Right could write to every senator that the bill was a step toward Fascism.
"It is nothing less than the birth of a 'corporate state,' in which the line between government and the private sector is blurred beyond recognition," wrote social conservatives Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer and Lou Sheldon. "The corporate state, you will recall, was the essence of Fascism."
Conservative pollsters provided Republicans with a response to Democratic charges that they were in the pockets of the tobacco interests: Hammer the bill as a tax grab and change the subject to issues Republicans believe Americans care more about.
"What we were hearing out there," said Linda Divall, a Republican pollster, "was, No. 1, people did not believe reducing teen smoking was the No. 1 question in the country. It was lethal drugs first, and with all the school shootings, juvenile violence was moving to the forefront. And No. 2, people were skeptical of government's ability to say to teen-agers you should or should not do anything."
In the midst of the debate, Republicans attached to the bill a $15 billion drug interdiction program and a $46 billion tax cut. Democrats were furious when those same Republicans denounced the bill as a budget buster.
But by Wednesday, it was clear to both parties that the bill had gotten out of hand. When Sen. Connie Mack, an anti-tobacco Florida Republican, emerged from a Republican meeting that morning and threw up his hands in despair, it was clear that proponents would never secure the 60 votes they needed to clear procedural hurdles and pass the measure.
"As I have seen this thing become worse and worse and worse, my spirits have become dampened," said Mack, whose family has had long personal struggles with cancer. "I don't see how things can get better. They'll only get worse."
Nevertheless, some dim hope lingers. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, quietly met with senators to seek support for a $428 billion tobacco control bill that closely mirrors last year's settlement with the states. Wednesday, Hatch personally urged Clinton to call a White House summit of congressional leaders and agree to back his bill as the only real hope.
But an industry lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed doubt that the parties that forged the first agreement could ever find the trust needed to forge another.
"It's very difficult for me to see how the industry could ever trust these people again," he said of the White House, the public health community and Congress. "They're saying we can just put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Well, we've heard all that before."
Pub Date: 6/19/98