Commentary

Unfair Games

This article originally appeared on Creators.com on October 21, 2004.
When it comes to unfair gamesmanship, Kerry hit a new low lately with campaign claims that President Bush is somehow responsible for contamination of flu vaccine at a plant in England, that the president’s re-election portends a military draft, and that the president plans, as January surprise, to slash Social Security benefits by 30 percent to 45 percent. An astute Washington Times cartoonist suggested Kerry might as well have also accused the president of eating puppy dogs. These scare tactics tell the voters much more about Kerry than about Bush. And they will backfire just as surely as the premeditated and mean-spirited remark about Mary Cheney did.

Kerry told Florida seniors, “You don’t have a prayer of getting a flu shot.” That was the opposite of responsible leadership. It could only contribute to a mindless panic as people rush to get in line for flu vaccine that has already been distributed, unaware that more is coming in the months ahead.

Aventis Pasteur will be distributing 14.2 million more doses of Fluzone through about mid-December, then another 8.2 million after that. It recently announced an extra 2.6 million doses in January. That adds up to 58 million doses, which is 42 percent less than expected but only 30 percent less than we used last year (83 million). If we had 100 million, much of it might have ended up discarded. That happened with much smaller amounts in the past, which is a major reason a dozen drug companies lost millions and stopped making the vaccine.

Unusually costly new U.S. regulations introduced in 1999 also compelled former vaccine producers to call it quits. The fact that Medicare and other government agencies use their buying power to hold down the price of flu vaccine — a policy Kerry advocates for all drugs — means there is plenty of downside risk when demand is weak, but no offsetting upside potential at times like this.

De facto price controls for flu vaccine artificially boost demand and discourage supply, resulting in shortages. If prices were allowed to move up during a shortage (which economic illiterates call “gouging”), the market would quickly attract additional vaccine from abroad, the product would be moved from areas with relative abundance to places of acute scarcity and healthy adults would have an incentive to stay out of the waiting lines.

“This isn’t a scare tactic,” Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said. “It’s a fact that (Bush’s) administration dropped the ball.” But it was not the fault of any federal official, least of all the president, that bacteria happened to be found in some batches of vaccine in England. We old folks don’t like being treated like fools.

The federal government has no authority to ration vaccine, but the states and local providers are trying to put a high priority on seniors. Yet Kerry opposes putting seniors first, complaining that President Bush “tells healthy Americans not to get their flu shots.” Would he prefer that healthy young Americans shove old ladies to the back of the line?

When Kerry is not trying to scare seniors, he tries it with juniors. He even raised a phantom threat of reviving the draft. “With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same and the great potential of a draft.” How desperate is that? Who does he think he’s fooling?

Kerry knows perfectly well that Democrats rather than Republicans sponsored bill HR. 163 to reinstate the draft. That bill was introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, and co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Corrine Brown of Florida, William Clay of Missouri, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Alcee Hastings of Florida, John Lewis of Georgia, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Jim McDermott of Washington state, James Moran of Virginia, Pete Stark of California, Nydia Velazquez of New York and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia. When Republicans brought the bill to a vote, 402 Congressmen voted against it, and only Stark and John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, voted for it. Any voters seriously worried about the draft should start by working hard to put those 15 Democratic congressmen out of office.

The number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq is only 9 percent of the total on active duty, and they will be gradually displaced by Iraqis. It is John Kerry rather than President Bush has suggested there weren’t enough U.S. troops in Iraq. It is Kerry rather than Bush who wants to enlarge the military forces by 40,000. And it is libertarians like Milton Friedman and conservative like then-Rep. Don Rusted who argued passionately and effectively against the draft during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Only John Kerry and his credulous apologist New York Times scribbler Paul Krugman could even try to add this up and conclude a draft is more likely under Bush Republicans than Kerry Democrats.

The draft scare is a huge lie. But even that one was soon trumped by another scare aimed at seniors. In Ohio and Florida, and a new TV ad, Sen. Kerry accused President Bush of plotting a “January surprise” to cut retirees’ Social Security benefits 30 percent to 45 percent. “That’s up to $500 a month less for food, for clothing,” he warned.

The Kerry ad says, “The truth is coming out. … Now, Bush has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent. The real Bush agenda? Cutting Social Security.”

This was no minor slip-up; It was a deliberate hoax. Spincity.org was properly appalled that, “Both the ad and Kerry’s statement clearly imply that seniors today will have their benefits cut by 30-45 percent.” And New York Times reporter David M. Halbfinger explained that, “Neither in the new Kerry ad nor in Kerry’s remarks in Ohio — to an aging congregation — did Kerry mention that the large-scale benefit cuts he cited apply only to people born in the 1980s and later.”

Besides, young people who opted to put less into Social Security in exchange for taking less out later would then have much more to look forward to from private retirement accounts, decades from now. Even so, the figures refer to one of many hypothetical plans that neither the president nor any legislator has endorsed.

As Factcheck.org says, “It’s not Bush’s plan, and it wouldn’t cut benefits.” Seniors now have one really good reason to be scared. One presidential candidate is openly trying to trick them.

As a political cynic, I would like to be able to say both sides are equally guilty of treating just about anything as “fair game” in politics. But there is really no comparison. After a long record of fabricating phony economic statistics, as I have shown in previous columns, the Kerry campaign has now degenerated into pandering to the politics of fear. Kerry presents his opponent as a man eager to slash Social Security benefits for today’s seniors, and someone personally responsible for the accidental contamination of flu vaccine in a British plant. He tells young voters the president is going to draft them, even though a Republican-dominated House voted that down that Democratic proposal by a 400 vote margin.

In a well-informed world, such obviously deceitful tactics ought to backfire, and they probably will. Kerry has clearly been willing to say just about anything to scare people into not voting for his opponent. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute.