Pharma Candidate for President in 2020?
Written by Editor   
Wednesday, February 20, 2019 04:05 PM

Cory Booker has been heckled by constituents as a pawn of “Big Pharma.”  He has been pointedly asked whether he could be trusted to hold large pharmaceutical companies accountable as he makes his run for the presidency in 2020.

That reputation, deserved or not, could become a major political liability for Booker, particularly at a time of concern over drug prices and in a race with other progressive lawmakers like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders whose disdain for large drug companies is palpable.

Booker knows his ability to win over Democrats appears to rest, in part, on whether he can convince voters he’s in the same league. But he is also wary of painting the industry with too broad a brush.  “I live in Newark, a low-income community where people work for pharmaceutical companies,” Booker said.

The past two years have left little doubt that Booker has fully embraced a pivot with regard to pharma.  In a major shift a year before announcing his White House run, Booker publicly swore off corporate campaign money, singling out cash from drug industry executives in particular.

For a senator from pharma-centric New Jersey, it was no small decision. In his most recent election cycle, in 2014, Booker received $223,350 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry and its employees. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the haul was the largest of any lawmaker, and among Democrats, almost twice the total of the lawmaker with the next-highest funding.

The pivot has extended to legislation, too.  Over the summer, Booker excitedly texted an aide after reading a NPR investigation into how drug companies impact Medicaid’s drug coverage decisions. His office introduced legislation to more aggressively police that process in December.

Last month, Booker was an unexpected guest at a press conference headlined by Sanders, at which Democratic politicians lamented corporate greed and unveiled bills to lower drug prices. And in a radio interview Booker went so far as to threaten the intellectual property rights of drug companies that raise prices in a manner he deems excessive.

“If I become president of the United States, we’re going to push to be able to punish them if they raise prices [without justification],” Booker said, citing as an example recent price hikes for a cancer drug that has been on the market for over a decade. 

Last year, he released a report that skewered drug companies for using their savings from a Republican tax bill for stock buybacks instead of increasing pay for low-level employees. “I’m very cognizant that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people in my state that are employed by this industry. And as an American, I want us to be on the cutting edge of biological research,” Booker has said. “I want us to be on the cutting edge of solving and curing diseases. But what you see happening right now is ill-gotten profits that are being used not for more research and not to raise pay but to manipulate stock.”

In 2016, some progressives voted against the 21st Century Cures Act, which bolstered funding for the National Institutes of Health and for addiction treatment. While supportive of those aims, several Democratic senators objected to provisions that reduced requirements for clinical trials in the spirit of speeding treatments to market. Sanders cited the provisions as evidence of “the greed of the pharmaceutical industry.”  Booker voted yes.

With voters’ perception of drug companies far underwater and with their desire to pay less for pharmaceuticals at the top of Capitol Hill’s priority list, early 2020 prognosticators have taken as a given that any Democrat who runs will have to speak both to high drug prices and to the pharmaceutical industry’s broader unpopularity.

And already, those Democrats have made bashing drug companies a feature of their campaigns.  Sanders makes regular reference to “the greed of Big Pharma.” Warren, weeks before she announced her White House bid, tweeted that “giant drug companies only care about one thing: raking in profits on the backs of patients.” Amy Klobuchar, while announcing her campaign told supporters that “the big pharma companies think they own Washington.”

If Booker plays the same game, his increasingly aggressive stances will be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism — both by progressive activists and by drug industry lobbyists who shrugged off his tough talk as a necessary element of a presidential campaign in the current political climate.

Booker did pledge to decline corporate PAC money and contributions from drug industry executives, and has challenged other Democratic candidates to do the same.  Booker also support legislation allowing drug importation from Canada, saying the updated versions included the safety provisions it had lacked when Booker initially voted no.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution said Booker will have to make the case to voters that he is on their side instead of drug companies’.  “Drug companies are almost up there with Donald Trump in terms of being one of the devils for Democrats,” she said.