WASHINGTON — Democrats demonized the pharmaceutical industry throughout the first primary debate of the 2020 presidential election, racing to prove their status as the candidate most willing to “take on pharma.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) castigated “giant drug companies” for their part in “rigging” the American economy in favor of corporate interests. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) said the drug industry “thinks they own Washington.” And Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) blamed pharmaceutical executives for the opioid crisis — utilizing some of the strongest rhetoric either has employed, even criticizing OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma by name.
“They should be held criminally liable, because they are liable,” said Booker. He pointed to the opioid crisis as “one of the reasons why well before I was running for president, I said I would not take contributions from pharma companies, not take contributions from corporate PACs or pharma executives, because they are part of this problem.”
The bombastic remarks, collectively, speak to the continuing political appeal both of promising to lower drug prices and of demonizing the pharmaceutical industry. The issue has enjoyed bipartisan attention in Washington in the nearly three years since Donald Trump was elected president. On Wednesday, however, Democrats escalated their rhetoric far beyond the tone employed by their Republican colleagues in Congress and even, in many cases, by Trump.
Candidates also used drug companies to criticize Republican policies, most notably the tax cut enacted in late 2017 that slashed corporate tax rates. Klobuchar lamented that the pharmaceutical industry, collectively, reaped nearly $100 billion in savings from that law. While numerous Democrats criticized the drug industry broadly, Klobuchar was most specific in her policy proposals, advocating to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and permit drug importation from certain foreign countries.
Booker, in vowing to take on the influence of major corporations, said pharmaceutical companies “often have a monopolistic hold on drugs” — remarks made all the more notable by Booker’s past reputation as an ally of the banks and drug companies that populate his home state.
Booker, Klobuchar, and Warren’s tough words match their recent legislative records in Washington. Booker this year signed onto legislation led by another Democratic candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), to cap U.S. drug payments based on an index of international prices. Beyond the Democratic plank of Medicare negotiation, Klobuchar has pursued several bipartisan proposals on promoting generic drug competition.
Warren, too, unveiled a unique proposal in late 2018: allowing the federal government to manufacture some generic drugs in an effort to spur competition.
Even beyond drug prices and pharmaceutical-centric calls to action, health care broadly proved the central policy issue for the first slate of 10 Democratic candidates. Just two of the Democrats on the debate stage — Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — said they favored abolishing private insurers in favor of a single-payer government health care provider.
All 10, however, supported a path to universal coverage including a “public option” or allowing Americans the option of buying into an existing federal program like Medicaid or Medicare. Former Rep. John Delaney (Md.) criticized universal coverage programs more sharply than any other candidate, warning that such a plan could result in the closure of nearly every private hospital.