Thursday, August 30, 2007

Huckabee Shines at Livestrong Forum

Here's a great article by Newsweek's Jonathon Alter.

Huckabee Stars as GOP Stumbles

Aug. 28, 2007 - On the second day of Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Presidential Cancer Forum, only two of the eight invited Republican candidates showed up—a reflection of some poor thinking in the GOP. But it didn’t matter too much. Attendees at the Cedar Rapids, Iowa event may look back at two “surges” that began here—one a boom in health care as a major campaign issue for Republicans; the other the emergence of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as a serious candidate for president.

The story of the no-shows tells you a lot about the state of the GOP. Some—like John McCain—had longstanding conflicts. But Mitt Romney was considered a likely guest until the last possible minute, then chose instead to speak at another cancer event, hastily scheduled this week by Republicans at the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer research. The best explanation for Romney’s decision to stiff Armstrong is that he didn't want to face questions from co-moderator Chris Matthews about why he was running away from his innovative health care plan in Massachusetts. (The breast cancer event was a speech, not a Q and A).

Rudy Giuliani was also expected, but refused to return several calls from Armstrong personally about whether he would attend. The best guess is that Giuliani didn’t want to have to acknowledge his support for embryonic stem cell research in front of conservative Iowa caucus-goers. His own status as a prostate-cancer survivor was apparently not enough protection.
That left Sen. Sam Brownback and Huckabee. Brownback, himself a melanoma survivor, scored some points by emphasizing his efforts to ease the availability of experimental drugs for end-stage cancer patients, which the FDA continues to make difficult, at a cost of thousands of lives. My question: Why couldn't he get his bipartisan bill passed when his party controlled the Senate? And Brownback's continued support for "high-risk insurance pools" is just more of the same for Americans with pre-existing conditions. On top of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, they have to pay three or four times as much for insurance, if they can get it at all. The only solution is to mandate a single risk pool for the entire country. But the insurance industry has bought and paid for too many legislators to allow that.

Brownback refused to be pinned down on cancer research funding. While all four Democrats who appeared Monday (plus Barack Obama) have pledged to at least double the $5 billlion in federal funds spent annually on cancer research, Brownback said he wanted to start with a pledge to end cancer deaths in ten years, then assess how much money would be required.
After he said it would require much more money, Matthews pounced. Where Democrats said they would fund their ambitious expansions of health-care funding by rescinding the tax cut for those making more than $200,000 a year and winding down the Iraq war, Brownback refused to make any tough choices, saying money could be saved with the equivalent of the military-base closing commission for the whole government. "If it could have been done so easily, it would have been done a long time ago. Presidents have to choose!" Matthews thundered.

Where Brownback was plodding and humorless, Huckabee was ambitious, fresh and amusing. He explained how he had lost 110 pounds, then set about transforming the health of the people in his state. Smoking is big in the South, so it is especially impressive that he got the Arkansas state legislature to ban all smoking in public places and workplaces. “It’s a work place safety issue, not just about bars and restaurants,” Huckabee noted. He also eliminated co-payments for colonoscopies, prostate tests and other screening, arguing that early detection will save the state billions. Considering that most states still don't require insurance companies to even cover colonoscopies—about the most pound-foolish policy imaginable—that's a real accomplishment.

Huckabee has a way of explaining things in ways people can relate to, and he received the most laughs and applause of the whole event. For example: "People today aren't eating food, they're eating 'food products'. You're better off throwing away the contents and eating the packaging. At least the cardboard has fiber."

He’s also the only candidate in either party who introduces truly fresh ideas I’ve never heard before. Some months ago, he launched the idea of federal funding for art and music programs, which he rightly says are necessary to help the U.S. keep its creative edge in global competition. And today Huckabee talked about a food-stamp program that would offer financial incentives for healthy choices, so that a dollar in food stamps would buy $1.25 worth of fruit and vegetables but only 75 cents worth of junk food. Worth a try.

Overall, Lance Armstrong and his foundation got something important going this week—a real conversation on cancer and health. Now it’s up to the candidates, the media and the public to keep it going.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

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