Which Side Are You On, Boys

There’s nothing like the class struggle to get Chatterbox’s blood boiling. Especially when it’s the saintly Democrats who are defending the castle walls against the populist forces demanding social justice. Thursday’s Senate vote to reject capping the legal fees in the tobacco settlement at a paltry six-pack-and-change $1,000 per hour illustrates how the Democrats have bartered their souls to the trial lawyers.

Why did only four Senate Democrats support this amendment to the tobacco bill? Principle, of course. As Bill Clinton frequently proclaims, campaign contributions never ever affect governmental decisions. So it is purely coincidental, as the New York Times has reported, that attorneys from 13 firms handling tobacco cases have selflessly donated $3 million to the Democrats since 1995.

Republican consultants are chortling over this vote as their long-awaited opportunity to play the class-warfare card against the Democrats. “Republicans have a ready-made bogeyman in the trial lawyers,” says GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. Earlier this week, she was testing Republican rhetoric on the tobacco bill with a panel of Florida voters. During a floor speech by Phil Gramm, a speaker rarely confused with William Jennings Bryan, Fitzpatrick reported that “the dials went off the charts” when the owlish senator began talking about how lawyers in the Texas tobacco case could garner a $92,000-an-hour windfall. “People understand $92,000 an hour,” she declared. “It has a certain ring to it.”

GOP pollster Frank Luntz gleefully composed a mock TV ad that the Republicans could use against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent like scandal-scarred Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun. Luntz’s text: “Senator Carol Moseley-Braun believes that $5,000 an hour is not enough to pay trial lawyers. Ten thousand dollars an hour is not enough. Twenty thousand is not enough. Thanks to Moseley-Braun, trial lawyers will make more in two hours than the average American makes in a year–all paid for by the federal government.”

The Democrats are sure to answer in kind with tear-jerker 30- second spots showing tow-headed youngsters saved by a courageous Congress from a lifetime of addiction to the demon weed. Of course, TV commercials cost big bucks. Which is where the generosity of the trial lawyers come in. Which is how the Democrats first got themselves into this fix.

Walter Shapiro