Supreme Court protects makers of medical devices; Clinton amps up attacks on Obama.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Feb. 21 2008 6:16 AM

One-Hit Wonder

The New York Timesleads with yesterday's Supreme Court decision that protects the makers of medical devices from lawsuits by consumers as long as the device passed a rigorous "premarket" approval process by the Food and Drug Administration. In an 8-1 decision, the justices said that federal law pre-empts states from imposing liability for these approved devices. It is seen as a big victory for the Bush administration, which has long sought to "pre-empt tougher state regulation." The Washington Postand Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox lead with a look at how Sen. Hillary Clinton is getting tougher on her rival for the presidential nomination. After 10 losses to Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton is criticizing him more harshly for his lack of experience in hopes that it can stop his momentum before the crucial contests in Texas and Ohio. The WSJ also mentions that an independent group plans to spend millions on an ad campaign to help push Clinton's message that she is more qualified to deal with the country's economic problems.

The Los Angeles Timesdevotes its top nonlocal spot to news that the Navy managed to hit a failed spy satellite on its first try. Early information seems to indicate that the satellite's fuel tank, which was filled with potentially toxic gas, was hit, but the Pentagon emphasized it would take 24 hours to be certain. USA Todayleads with a look at how several states are in the process of passing laws that would limit the ability of companies to cancel health insurance policies of consumers who buy their own coverage. Due to a recent increase in complaints about the practice, many state lawmakers are trying to figure out how they can make it harder for insurers to cancel policies.

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The Supreme Court decision doesn't affect most medical devices in the market today but is particularly important because it deals with the issue of pre-emption, which is "the fiercest battle in products liability litigation today," a law professor tells the Post. It's also likely to have an impact on a future case about whether FDA approval of a drug pre-empts lawsuits from people who were personally harmed by the drug. Key Democratic lawmakers vowed to quickly pass legislation to deal with the issue. USAT says that this decision, along with another unanimous ruling that stated Maine can't impose special requirements for tobacco deliveries, marks "a setback for state efforts to protect citizens in health-related areas."

In an analysis piece inside, the NYT notes that these efforts by the government come at an interesting time, when many have raised questions about whether the FDA is actually effective in making sure that dangerous products don't reach consumers. It's also one more example of how the Bush administration has been angering states' rights advocates, who are usually closely aligned with the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, the WP and LAT front another Supreme Court decision, which gave workers the right to sue employers over mismanagement of their 401(k) retirement plans. More than 50 million workers, who have somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 trillion invested in these types of accounts, could be affected by the decision. The LAT emphasizes this decision could lead to a variety of lawsuits by workers, and some warned that it might motivate small businesses to drop their plans in order to avoid problems.

Criticizing Obama for his lack of experience and for being a candidate who talks a good game but can't deliver the goods is hardly a new strategy for Clinton. The Post says Clinton's huge defeat in Wisconsin this week after intensely criticizing Obama showed voters weren't really swayed by her arguments, but she's betting that a more intense effort will give her better results in Texas and Ohio. A key test will play out tonight when the contenders will debate in Texas, an event that everyone says will be critically important for Clinton.

And while she has gotten a bit tougher, some of Clinton's advisers are arguing she should get even more aggressive. The NYT and LAT front looks at the continuing deep divisions among Clinton's advisers about how to go forward. Some, including Mark Penn, her chief strategist, are arguing that she has no choice but to carry out what the NYT characterizes as a "scorched-earth approach." Others are arguing that she should show a warmer side. These divisions are hardly new and were present even before the Iowa contest, notes the LAT. Penn won the early argument that she should run based on her experience and as a strong candidate who would be ready for the presidency "from Day One," a view many disagreed with inside the campaign. The LAT article makes it clear that Penn will get much of the blame if the former first lady loses the battle. Penn is not good at "recognizing the human aspects of a candidate or a campaign–the soul of it," a "person knowledgeable about the campaign" said.

And now for the story everyone will be talking about today. The NYT fronts a piece that claims that during the 2000 presidential race, several of Sen. John McCain's advisers became so concerned his relationship with a younger lobbyist "had become romantic" that they warned him it could destroy his career. A former top strategist for McCain says (on the record) he even met with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, to privately urge her to stay away from his boss. The Times says two "former associates" said McCain "acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance." The story itself is rather odd because it begins with the explosive revelation that McCain might have had an affair, but it then tries to blend it in with a look back at the Keating Five scandal and other instances where McCain stepped away from his persona as a lawmaker who fights against special interests, which could have been interesting by itself as a mere memory-jogger. The NYT then waits until near the end of the story to go back to the relationship with the lobbyist. Overall, the paperpresents surprisingly little evidence that there actually was inappropriate behavior beyond the concerns of some staffers, which makes one wonder what was left out of a piece that was undoubtedly heavily vetted by lawyers. Of course, McCain and Iseman both deny there was any kind of romantic involvement, and yesterday his campaign issued a statement calling the story "a hit-and-run smear campaign."

More of this will surely be coming out in the next few days, but a key question remains: Why did the NYT decide to publish this today when Drudge had warned the story was coming back in December? The New Republic revealed yesterday that its media reporter has been working on a piece about the infighting at the NYT regarding the story, and McCain's camp says it was the reason why the story was published now.

The WP fronts a brief follow-up to the Times story but doesn't mention a romantic involvement, preferring to say that the senator's aides were concerned about his "continued ties to a lobbyist" who had business before the committee he chaired. The concerns grew so deep that at one point Iseman was banned from McCain's office. Three telecom lobbyists told the WP that Iseman frequently bragged about her connections to McCain.

For those who think a recession is the worst thing that could happen to the U.S. economy, the NYT and WSJ both front looks at increasing fears that the country could enter into a period of stagflation. The United States hasn't experienced this dreaded mixture of rising inflation and unemployment coupled with slumping growth since the 1970s, and the prospect raises big questions for the Federal Reserve because it can't deal with one problem without making the other one worse. "They are walking a very fine line right now," an expert tells the NYT.

Many have expressed skepticism that the administration would undertake such an expensive and complex operation to shoot down a satellite for something that carried a negligible risk. Some have suggested the Pentagon wanted to test its capabilities a year after China shot down an aging weather satellite, while others say it had to do with testing missile defense technology. "This is only conceivable if you can imagine that the people who are in charge of intelligence-gathering might attempt to mislead the American public," writes the NYT'sGail Collins.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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