Defeat of tobacco bill may have a political upside for Democrats


WASHINGTON -- In President Clinton's first term, Republican and insurance industry strategists successfully convinced the public that the broad Clinton effort to reform health care and bring "universal" coverage to all Americans was nothing more than a bid to create a huge new federal bureaucracy. Its defeat was Mr. Clinton's worst legislative setback.

Now, Republican and tobacco industry strategists have pulled off a similar success in arguing that Mr. Clinton and publichealth activists, in the national tobacco control bill just squelched in the Senate, were really motivated by a quest for more taxes to spend on pet projects, rather than to reduce teen smoking.

In the first case, there was little doubt that a massive insurance industry television campaign, featuring the fictional Harry and Louise, convincingly painted Mr. Clinton's health care reforms as an excessive big government scheme.

A misleading blitz

In the current case, the tobacco industry has owned up to spending about $40 million in another massive television campaign. The real reason the bill's supporters wanted to raise the price of cigarettes $1.10 a pack, the ad campaign said, was to enable the Clinton administration to get its hands on a huge tax bonanza.

Never mind that the bill's chief sponsor was a fiscally conservative Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and that 14 Republicans joined 43 Democrats to support the bill.

Like the earlier television blitz to kill health care reform, the one to scuttle tobacco reform was aimed at voters in the hope they would bring pressure on their elected leaders. But there is little evidence that the public has changed its mind that the tobacco industry has been grossly deceitful about the impact of its product on kids and adults alike, and requires more regulation.

If successful pressure was applied, it was more likely on Republican senators who are recipients of large campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. The 40 Republicans who voted to kill the bill are gambling that their party won't be punished in November for this act of legislative homicide.

While the vote was a defeat for Mr. Clinton, it could have a political upside for him. He said after the vote that he didn't believe the industry's television campaign had turned the tide, but "even if the politics have changed, the merits haven't."

The battle continues

He and other Democratic leaders can be expected between now and the November congressional elections to flail away not only at the tobacco industry but at the Republican Party. They will charge that the GOP has been bought out at the expense of all those, including childcare recipients, who would have been helped by the hundreds of billions of dollars that would have been wrung out of the industry under the bill.

The various state attorneys general who have been pressing their own cases against the tobacco industry are vowing to continue their efforts in the courts, where after years of frustrating setbacks, some judgments are being awarded to complainants. And the Federal Drug Administration will continue to push for tighter controls on cigarette advertising.

Politically, key battlegrounds will be marginal congressional districts where the Democrats will use the issue in their quest to pick up the 11 seats they need to regain control of the House. Prior to the tobacco vote, they were being given little chance of reversing the historical trend of the party of an incumbent secondterm president losing House seats.

The tobacco industry has demonstrated in its $40 million advertising campaign that, having decided earlier this year it would rather fight than switch, it is ready, willing and able to pour what it takes to help those Republicans who are willing to help them in their hour of need. Thus the stage is set for a fall campaign with tobacco use and tobacco money as a centerpiece.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad