George W. Bush: Calling for Philip Morris
The Smooth Taste of Tobacco Money
Tort reform--backed as it is by corporate America--has been a lucrative source of funds for Bush's two gubernatorial campaigns and for his presidential kitty. Since he's garnered nearly $60 million so far, however, money is not a problem for the Bush campaign. Still, it's instructive to look at the tobacco money that has so far found its way into the campaign's coffers. Since the start of his fundraising in early '99, Bush has accepted $45,550 from tobacco industry executives, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Even more interesting is the fact that attorneys associated with a group of twenty-three law firms employed by the tobacco industry in Texas--firms that battled the state in the $17 billion lawsuit--have given Bush almost $250,000 more, according to antitobacco activists in Texas. High on the list, for example, are thirteen attorneys with the Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis, who funneled $11,000 to Bush; that firm is the home of Kenneth Starr, the appeals court litigator for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company who is better known as the former Whitewater independent counsel.
So far Bush has refused to accept political action committee money from the tobacco industry. (A $5,000 contribution from an apparently overeager Brown & Williamson PAC was returned by the campaign.) But even in doing so, Bush refuses to say that the industry's money is tainted. The Governor, says campaign spokesman McClellan, rejects the money only because the state is involved in ongoing litigation involving the industry.
When it comes to tobacco money, however, the real muscle for the Republican Party is the vast sum of soft money that Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, Brown & Williamson and US Tobacco donate to the GOP in chunks of $10,000, $100,000 or more. Since 1991 the tobacco industry has contributed $15,570,000 to the Republican Party in soft money, with two-thirds of that coming during the last two election cycles. (Recently virtually all of tobacco's money has gone to the GOP--in 1999, by a factor of 10 to 1.) If that pattern holds for 2000, once again the Republican Party will find itself awash in tobacco cash, giving it extensive resources to spend on behalf of Bush's presidential bid next year.
A Meeting of Minds
Whether it's a result of the people he surrounds himself with, the money that the Republicans get from the industry or some natural proclivity to defend a pariah industry, Bush has compiled a significant string of actions on tobacco's behalf. In September, after President Clinton and the Justice Department announced a federal lawsuit against the industry seeking to recover billions of dollars in government expenditures to care for the health-related effects of tobacco, Bush was quick to announce his opposition. Bush was, he said, "troubled by the Justice Department's apparent reversal of its earlier position that there was no merit for a federal lawsuit," adding that he hopes the "era of big government is not replaced with the era of big lawsuits." But Bush's worries about big government apparently don't include any concern about the federal tobacco price-support program, since a few weeks earlier the Texas Governor gave it his blessing. And, for good measure, in an appearance in North Carolina he slammed the idea of increasing federal taxes on cigarettes, widely viewed by antitobacco activists as a crucial tool in reducing the prevalence of teenage smoking. "We have recognized that there are some adults, once properly warned, who choose to smoke," said Bush, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
In Texas, too, Bush has coddled the industry. When Texas's then-Attorney General Morales and a team of lawyers forced the industry to agree to pay Texas $17 billion in damages, allowing the state to recover some of what it has spent over the years caring for sick and dying smokers, Bush--who refused to back Morales's lawsuit--actually sued the Attorney General to block the payment of more than $2 billion in legal fees due to the private attorneys who handled the case. All by itself, Bush's action, if successful, could unravel the entire agreement, saving Philip Morris billions of dollars--and costing taxpayers in Texas an equal amount in lost revenue. (At the time, Morales said that Bush's lawsuit "is about one thing and one thing only: a Republican presidential campaign and political contributions from big tobacco.")
Then, earlier this year, a coalition of health groups, including the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, pressed Bush to support a $60-million-a-year smoking prevention program aimed at children, using money from the tobacco settlement. But Bush ignored the calls, which included a personal appeal from former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, with the result that the Texas legislature agreed to spend just $10 million. Matt Myers, executive vice president and general counsel of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, says that $10 million is about what the tiny state of Vermont spends on such programs. "It would be a tragedy if the children in Texas don't get the benefit of state prevention programs," he says. And, he adds, "I think it's unfortunate that so much focus [in Texas] has been put on lawyers and so little focus on using the settlement to reduce tobacco use among kids."
Whether Bush's opponents will raise the tobacco issue, and what effect it might have, is unclear. Senator John McCain, chief sponsor of the antitobacco legislation that was killed by the industry in 1997, told an American Lung Association meeting in October that he supports a "war...against the tobacco companies and the evil things they do," pointedly noting how lavishly the industry funds politicians. But he didn't mention Bush, and a spokesman says McCain won't bring up the issue of Bush's involvement himself. Vice President Al Gore, Bush's probable opponent, could also use the issue against Bush, but Gore has hobbled himself by hiring Carter Eskew, a Democratic consultant who helped devise pro-tobacco commercials in 1997.
There's no question that Bush's tobacco ties make him vulnerable to attack. And it's conceivable that under criticism, Bush could abandon the industry: With his lead in the polls, his fundraising juggernaut and most of America's corporate elite lining up behind him, he can afford to write it off. But as with smoking itself, Bush and the Republicans may find that kicking the habit is beyond their ability, leaving them and Big Tobacco to enter the new millennium together.