The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is handing Democrats a gift on drug prices

President Trump speaks during a meeting with pharmaceutical industry leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump said he wasn’t like other politicians. He wouldn’t sell voters out to lobbyists in Washington. He would “drain the swamp.” One piece of evidence for this argument was his promise to break with GOP orthodoxy and support the government — especially Medicare — negotiating drug prices directly with the pharmaceutical industry, saving billions. In typical Trump fashion, he overestimated those savings, but the stand against the industry was nevertheless an important symbol, particularly to older voters.

Less than two weeks in, Trump is already waffling on that stand. His softening — and what it portends — is an opportunity that opponents cannot afford to pass up.

It turns out that it took only one visit from the pharmaceutical industry to get Trump singing a different tune. As recently as three weeks ago, Trump said drug companies were “getting away with murder.” He added, “We’re the largest buyer of drugs in the world, and yet we don’t bid properly.” On Tuesday, though, meeting with the bosses of some of the world’s largest drug companies, he shifted the blame elsewhere:

So what I want, we have to get lower prices, we have to get even better innovation and I want you to move your companies back into the United States. And I want you to manufacture in the United States. We’re going to be lowering taxes, we’re going to be getting rid of regulations that are unnecessary.

Instead of getting tough with these companies, Trump is offering tax cuts to businesses that already make billions in profits every year. It’s true that Sean Spicer insisted later that Trump still is considering negotiated pricing. But the fact is that, when facing members of the industry, Trump refused to confront them. Furthermore, it’s well-known by now that “Trump tends to echo the words of the last person with whom he spoke” and there aren’t exactly a lot of pro-health-care consumer voices in the White House. All this suggests that when the chips are down, Trump is going to side with businesses over consumers.

As Democrats found out in 2004 when the “we’re not George W. Bush” message fell flat, it is not enough to simply be anti-GOP; the party needs to stand for a specific, positive agenda. Making drug prices as big an issue as possible highlights not only how Trump is breaking promises to his voters but also how Democrats are offering a different policy on something that directly affects voters’ pocketbooks. Done right, it can even break Trump’s stranglehold on political news — recall how Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) printing out Trump’s tweet on entitlements went viral. In fact, Sanders and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will soon be introducing a bill allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices — a good start, but it remains to be seen how hard the broader Democratic caucus will push. If Trump’s opponents are serious about reversing him in 2018 and 2020, though, these are the sorts of things they need to capitalize on.