"Prescription Drugs" was produced for the Democratic National Committee by "Democratic Victory 2000," a combined effort of Squier Knapp Dunn, Shrum Devine Donilon, and Carter Eskew. Click for a transcript of the ad.
To: William Saletan
From: Jacob Weisberg
Behind this ad are a broken pledge, which I wrote about Wednesday, and a legal collapse. Spending on presidential campaigns in a general election is supposed to be limited to what the federal government provides.
But enough about the circumstances—let's talk content. We start with one Bob Darthez, a depressed looking old guy staring out the window of his house. Why does Bob look so gloomy? Possibly because he lives in the Seattle area and never sees the sun, but for our purposes because he is having trouble affording groceries in addition to the many bottles of prescription drugs we see laid out on his dining room table. Having established the problem, a familiar one to many elderly people in this country, the ad moves to a middle passage in which it assigns blame to big drug companies that it says are using "money and lobbyists to stop progress in Washington." Money is imaginatively illustrated by money, Washington by the Capitol dome. Enter Al Gore, in shirtsleeves, as the faint ring of a bell is heard over the ominous background music. As the voice-over explains that Gore is "taking on" the drug companies, the atmosphere begins to brighten. The light improves. A tinkling piano replaces the leaden strings. Help is on the way.
This is a slick paleo-liberal commercial. You might describe it as a Madison Avenue marriage of populism and pandering. The populism has to do with assigning blame to a faceless corporate villain—big drug companies that charge extortionate prices for prescription drugs and then engage in a form of corruption to protect themselves from the government doing something about the problem. One obvious question is why the drug companies should be opposed to the federal government buying their products for seniors who can't afford them. The short answer is that pharmaceutical companies are concerned that a Medicare drug benefit will come with price controls attached. But bashing the drug companies in this way may prove self-defeating should Gore eventually get the chance to tackle the problem. Hillary Clinton lambasted the drug industry in a very similar way in 1993. Doing so turned the industry from a skeptic into an enemy of her health-care reform plan.
The pandering in the ad comes in the offer of a massive new federal benefit to seniors without any reference to the costs or the trade-offs involved. As with Gore's proposals on Social Security and education, the promise to spend more to expand Medicare benefits without any real element of reform indicates a surprisingly old Democratic mentality. As the Economist noted this week, Gore seems to be running a campaign directed exclusively at geezers and losers—old folks and the nearly poor. This ad supports that harsh assessment.
To: Jacob Weisberg
From: William Saletan
First of all, this ad brazenly violates the campaign-finance laws. (To see how, click here.) But let me pick up on your observation about the offer of a massive new benefit without reference to cost. This ad presents an opportunity to study the art of hidden assumptions. In this case, the assumption is an entitlement to prescription drugs. Having "worked a lifetime" entitles our protagonist, Bob, to these drugs. Never mind how much the drugs cost to research and produce, and never mind that many (if not most) of them didn't exist while Bob was working. He's "at the mercy of the big drug companies" because those companies get to decide how much money to charge for their products. This, according to Gore, is plainly outrageous: When people's "doctors prescribe medicine for their health and their well-being, they ought to be able to take it."
Let's apply the same rhetoric to the other half of Bob's financial dilemma. Bob has to figure out how "to afford his groceries and prescription drugs." What about the high price of groceries? Isn't it outrageous that after paying for his prescription drugs, Bob doesn't have enough money left over for food? Isn't Bob at the mercy of the big grocery chains? And isn't it obvious that when people's doctors prescribe food for their health and their well-being, they ought to be able to eat it?
Why isn't the ad written the second way instead of the first way? Because we've already agreed in this country that people are entitled to enough food to survive. If you're poor, you can get food stamps. Nobody has to protest that people are "at the mercy of the big grocery companies." If one grocer charges too much, poor people, like rich people, are expected to go to another. Competition is expected to prevent either the buyer or the seller from being at the other's "mercy."
You can make an argument that prescription drugs should be treated the same way. But the case for subsidized drugs isn't nearly as obvious as the case for subsidized food. Food has long been understood as a necessity. If you don't eat, you'll die, regardless of your age. Drugs for the elderly are a different matter. Before "big drug companies" developed the latest medicines, it was considered normal for old people to die of these maladies. Anyone who had "worked a lifetime" had also lived a lifetime. If they lived even longer, thanks to good genes or expensive drugs, that was a bonus, not an entitlement.
What's happening now is that the concept of a "lifetime" is expanding. People like Bob are living longer than they used to, thanks to prescription drugs. This is wonderful. It would be even more wonderful if the United States saw to it that everyone in the world could take these drugs. We ship them food when they're starving. Why don't we ship them life-prolonging drugs? Because we don't think they're entitled to these drugs. Maybe Bob Darthez and other elderly Americans are so entitled. That would be a question worth debating in the 2000 election. But this ad doesn't confront that question. It just slides an answer past the viewer, in the guise of "mercy" and "well-being."