Eye on the Right

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The American rightwing is a fascinating mixture of bottom-line driven corporations and fierce ideologues interested in advancing their single issues. We single out the pharmaceutical and oil and gas industries, as well as the anti-immigration movement, for this Dispatch, but we could have just as easily highlighted the libertarian gang wreaking havoc with ballot initiatives this year, the corporate-backed front groups assailing hard-working Americans, the contractors seeking to profit from privatization, or any of a host of other groups engaged in the public debate out of a weird mix of rightwing principles and deeply vested personal interests.

The snapshot below provides a clear indicator of how many of these organizations work, though. Honest, offensive statements followed by half-hearted and often bizarre apologies. Astroturf front groups whose names indicate broad membership, but whose membership lists are often limited to a handful of powerful companies. Scare tactics to convince consumers that what's best for the company's bottom line is inevitably best for the consumers. And efforts to scare and intimidate Americans away from voting.

Typically, the Eye on the Right is just an on-going feature. We're dedicated to presenting a forward-looking, progressive agenda. But it's important to keep an eye on those who oppose us, so we'll continue to offer up these longer, more in-depth pieces from time to time.

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PhRMA's Plans to Tighten Grip on State Politics

The pharmaceutical lobby has earned itself a nasty reputation in American politics. Recently, PhRMA, the major drug industry trade association, got caught first trying to commission propaganda -- a novel about terrorists poisoning Americans by targeting drugs set for reimportation -- before walking away from the project and having it backfire. The result? A thriller where poisoned drugs still come into the country -- but this time, the terrorists are backed by a pharmaceutical company looking to scare the American people.

The plot is fiction. The motive is not. The pharmaceutical companies go to great lengths -- typically successfully -- to protect higher profits and find new ways to get more and more money out of consumers and taxpayers who fund prescription drug benefits for the elderly and low-income Americans.

  • Funneling Money to Hide Its Source. When PhRMA went to bat for supporters of the wildly expensive Medicare Part D drug program, they at least had the good sense to realize the American public does not trust them. So rather than disclosing their role in funding (at least partially) a $10 million ad campaign by the Chamber of Commerce lauding Congressional supporters of the bill. PhRMA had earlier given money to the astroturf rightwing United Seniors Association in 2002 to promote the bill. During its drafting, the sponsors excluded common sense measures to lower prices and keep costs down for taxpayers -- price negotiations and reimportation legalization. The pharmaceutical industry has been outspoken in criticizing both measures.
  • Focusing on the States. With D.C. bought off, PhRMA has also stepped up its work in the states, putting $44 million into state lobbying in 2003 and 2004, according to The Center for Public Integrity. The millions went to fighting bulk purchasing, reimportation, price negotiations, and preferred drug lists. Analysts found states taking advantage of their purchasing power could result as much as $4 billion in savings. Campaign contributions in the states haven't hurt PhRMA's power -- they put $8 million into the campaigns of state officeholders during the 03-04 period.
  • Astroturfing the States. Grassroots organizations are beginning to see the same astroturf and front-group methods in the states that PhRMA employed in D.C. during the Medicare Part D fight. In Utah, a former state legislator is now being paid by PhRMA while ostensibly setting up a coalition to advocate for patients. His work, though, is being steered by the Kennedy Group, a political consulting firm that helped orchestrate the defeat of pro-consumer legislation in Colorado. The Kenney Group is also astroturfing in New Mexico.

What's the cost of the drug industry's maneuvering? Oregon knows first hand. The state embraced a preferred drug list and went so far as to require that doctors looking to prescribe alternatives to the preferred drugs listen to recorded messages regarding the cost and efficacy of the compared drugs. The legislature ended up shelving that requirement, though -- a move that costs the state $400,000 per month in higher drug costs. Oregon's preferred drug list placed a premium on both cost and quality. Unfortunately, it turns out that are prescription drug companies aren't much interested in keeping the costs low.

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Immigrant Bashing Enters Mainstream Politics

As the immigration debate has heated up, xenophobia has moved into the mainstream in American politics, with high-profile efforts of rightwing politicians and elected officials to tie themselves to vigilante groups and even openly racist organizations and nearly unprecedented efforts to intimidate voters.

  • The O.C. Letter. The most infamous immigrant-bashing escapade of the far-right has been unfolding in Orange County, California, where Congressional challenger Tan Nguyen's campaign sent a letter on fake letterhead declaring that if "you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time..." That's not true -- naturalized citizens (a.k.a. immigrants) can vote. Nguyen's letter was also signed by a made-up person. His campaign supposedly fired the staffer responsible (the California Progress Report says this is a dubious claim), but now says the staffer will be rehired "because he believes the mailer was fair."
  • The Racist Arizona Legislator. Rep. Russell Pearce came under fire for calling for the reinstatement of "Operation Wetback" -- a 1950s government operation to deport immigrants. Now he's apologizing for forwarding an email from the National Alliance, a Nazi organization, that lauds White Supremacism and advances anti-Semitic ideas of a Jewish conspiracy controlling America's media. He apologized later, saying he had failed to read the email before sending it. He also apologized for using the term wetback. Whatever. This isn't even a third-tier campaign staffer we're talking about. It's an elected state policymaker.
  • Partying With the Minuteman. Hispanic Republicans in Nevada got angry when their state party's leadership sent an invite for a Minutemen event. The Minutemen are a far-right citizens group that has decided to take patrolling the border into their own hands -- fancy language for vigilanteism.

In other places, rightwing immigrant-bashing has had ironic and sometimes funny results. In Arizona, an anti-immigrant candidate hired undocumented immigrants to appear in an ad explaining how he would crack down on immigrants. And a Colorado lawmakers' efforts to make it tougher for immigrants to get ID resulted in his daughter being unable to get her driver's license. The irony is thick, but the stakes are high. While laughing at the hypocrisy, it should be clear that these results also make plain how unrealistic these rightwing solutions are.

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Greasing the Wheels: Big Oil Plays to Win

If there's a lobby less liked than the pharmaceutical lobbyists, it is probably big oil. Not only have these folks been pulling it in hand over fist in recent years, they've been getting giant tax breaks, charging consumers a ton, and fighting tooth-and-nail to avoid any regulations that would stem the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But what they lack in popularity, they more than make up for in ingenuity. And they seem to have written a new playbook for political victory. The first chapter is probably entitled "Winning Means Never Being Afraid to Lie."

  • Earlier this year, in response to the release of An Inconvenient Truth, the oil-backed Competitive Enterprise Institute released a couple ads declaring that when it comes to CO2, "They call it pollution. We call it life." In addition to hilarious hyperbole, the ads misrepresented the facts. Indeed, authors of one study on Greenland's glaciers had to call out the "Institute" for misrepresenting the science in their report.
  • In California, where voters are considering ending a long era where their state has been one of the few without an extraction tax, oil interests have dumped $60 million into opposing the proposition that would tax oil to promote "cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels." Opponents are warning of higher prices at the pump, but opponents note that world markets dictate fuel prices and -- since most American states already have extraction taxes -- implementation of a tax on production in one more state is likely to have a minimal impact. Unsurprisingly, the media says both sides are misleading consumers.
  • In an attempt to prove that PhRMA isn't the only special interest that can build front groups, Big Oil funded an Alaska non-profit claiming to represent the state's youth. In reality, the organization's membership list was the "Big Three" -- ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips. The organization, named Alaska's Future, was started to oppose a tax on natural gas developers. A founding director of the organization disclosed how the front group was started after leaving the state and saying the companies had failed to pay his salary as they were supposed to.