No Panaceas

Thursday, July 24, 2003
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't: For rather obvious economic reasons U.S. pharmaceutical companies don't want their drugs reimported from Canada and Europe. But for two reasons the political case is a difficult one for the drug companies to make. First, consumers, especially seniors, are increasingly angry over the high price of drugs in the U.S., as contrasted with Canada. Seniors as a demographic vote and they are well organized politically. Second, the drug companies are in the tricky position of having to seemingly argue against free trade. In truth, the situation is rather more complicated but complicated arguments don't sell very well in politics.

When you are on the losing side of a political fight one possible winning strategy is to transform what the debate is all about. It is usually hard to do, but clever reframing of the debate can rearrange the existing political coalitions to your favor. This is what the late political scientist William Riker called heresthetics . The drug companies tried to do this with the reimportation issue. Rather than make the fight solely about economics, the drug companies tried to reframe the issue as one about abortion. They wrote and funded a letter -- sent under the auspices of the Traditional Values Coalition -- making the argument that reimportation will greatly increase the availability of RU-46 in the United States. You can see why the drug companies came up with the idea. After all, many of the very same conservative legislators who are attracted to free trade arguments, and who have a lot of senior constituents, are also pro-life. So by transforming the debate away from free trade and expensive drugs to one about abortion, the drug companies hoped to peel off enough conservative legislators to stop reimportation.

Unfortunately for the drug companies the ploy was so incredibly cynical and so blatant that it has completely backfired. And many of those very same conservative legislators are now totally pissed at both the drug companies and the TVC. A few choice selections from yesterday's Post:

House Republicans were so offended by the mailings that they recently barred the TVC and its leader, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, from attending future meetings of the Values Action Team, an umbrella group of socially conservative Republicans. "We stand united in opposition to the unethical and unacceptable tactics you have employed to force pro-life members of Congress to support your views," Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa.) said in a letter to Sheldon.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), an abortion opponent who was targeted by the TVC mailings, said in an interview: "It makes me so angry I could spit."


Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and several other conservatives are blaming the drug companies for the mailing campaign, though they offered no specific evidence linking the mailing to [the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America] or individual companies.

"I do not understand . . . how a religious organization can be manipulated by the pharmaceutical industry to do this sort of thing," Burton said. "They are supposed to be moral people. And yet I am confident, in fact I am dead sure, that the Traditional Values Coalition did not have the money to mail this kind of trash out to congressional districts all across the country."