Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and the Unfought War on Cancer: Republicans Are Stepping Up in the Fight Against Disease

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On a personal level, it’s impossible not to feel great sympathy for Joe Biden when he talked about his son Beau, who died of brain cancer in May at age 46. His anguish still visible on Wednesday, as he announced he would not seek the presidency, Biden said he was making a “personal” commitment to seek instead a cure for cancer; as he put it, “I’m going to spend the next 15 months in this office pushing as hard as I can to accomplish this.”

Moreover, Biden went further: He summoned up the memory of John F. Kennedy—a hero to most Americans, and all Democrats—when he called for “a moon shot in this country to cure cancer.”  That’s some ambitious thinking; as we all know, the Apollo project, landing astronauts on the moon in 1969, was one of the great triumphs of American history.

But of course, it’s easy to see why Biden feels as he does about cancer— and it’s also easy to see that most Americans agree with him.  After all, some 600,000 Americans die from the disease every year; cancer has been called “The Emperor of Maladies” for good reason.

Okay, so much for personality, -now let’s get to politics.

For all the nobility of Biden’s personal sentiments, on a political level, it’s impossible to listen to the Vice President and not feel a sense of exasperation.  And that’s because we’ve heard this beat-cancer pitch before from the Obama administration—and from an even more senior official.  That would be President Obama himself, whose mother died of ovarian cancer in 1995.

Way back on February 24, 2009, in his very first appearance before a joint session of Congress, Obama touted his economic recovery program, and he included these words about cancer: “Our recovery plan will… launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time.”

So as we can see, nearly seven years before Biden’s announcement, Obama, too, said that he wanted to cure cancer—and of course, during that presidential speech, Biden was sitting just over Obama’s shoulder.

Yet since 2009, some 10 million Americans have been diagnosed with cancer, and the administration has had little to say.

So what happened?  How did the president’s bold declaration about seeking a cure for cancer turn into such a fizzle?   And what does that fizzle tell us about Biden’s prospects for success in the remaining year-and-a-half of the lame-duck Obama administration?

The answer to that question, of course, is Obamacare.   Yes, the fight over health insurance, passionate and heartfelt on both sides, has simply sucked all the oxygen out of any other consideration about health.

So, as a result, only a few non-Obamacare health issues have received much attention.    One such issue, we might note, was Ebola, which erupted in Dallas in 2014.   For a few weeks, attention was riveted on tragic Africans, gallant missionaries, and plucky-but-unlucky nurses.  And in fact, the disease was arrested; what could have been a major epidemic was turned into just some isolated agonies, at least in the US.

Thus we are reminded that while health insurance—including the debate over Obamacare—is important, health itself is more important.   If the Ebola outbreak had been allowed to spiral out of control, it would have done little good that victims had health insurance—because they would have been dead.

Indeed, the system’s response to Ebola last year serves as a reminder that  when establishment figures really want to solve a health crisis, they usually can.   For various reasons, the Obama administration really wanted to put the kibosh on Ebola, and it did so.  Yet meanwhile, as the late Beau Biden discovered, the cancer epidemic continues to rage.

And so we are reminded of a basic disconnect between Washington, DC, and the rest of the country.   You see, when real people think about “health care,” they think of “health.” As in, “Am I well or sick?” “Is there a cure for what ails me?” “Is my family going to be okay?” That’s human nature.

But DC is different.   Inside the Beltway, when politicos hear the word “healthcare,” they don’t think of health, but rather, health insurance.  

It’s a bit of categorical confusion that afflicts DC policy wonks.  You know, the men and women—mostly young and energetic, willing to pull all-nighters to get their latest position-paper done—who sit and do their work in the computer-cubicle equivalent of ivory towers.

Frankly, both political parties are guilty of this categorical confusion: In 2012, the Republican and Democratic Party wonks hammered out their respective national platforms.  And yet amidst a combined total of some 60,000 words—in which Obamacare, pro and con, was attacked and defended copiously—neither the Republican Platform, nor the Democratic Platform, even mentioned the word “cure.”   Not a single mention, in either party’s document.   It’s almost as if the wonks believed that the purpose of the healthcare system was to give them something to argue about, as opposed to giving Americans a better life.

Sadly enough, in 2012, Beau Biden had already been hospitalized with the cancer that would kill him.  And only now, in 2015, is Joe Biden ready to take up arms against cancer.   Better late than never, to be sure, but today, the sands are running out of the Obama-Biden Administration’s hourglass.

So America’s eyes are now turning to those who wish to replace Obama and Biden.   Will they seek out a better healthcare vision?

No, not Hillary: Just last week, she crowed that the pharmaceutical companies were an enemy she was proud to have.   It’s hard to see how much progress against disease can be made without the drug companies on the team.   One needn’t be a drug-company stooge to see that drugs are a key part of any anti-cancer arsenal.  And as an aside, we might recall that other enemies Hillary boasted about included “Republicans.”   You know, as in roughly half the country—and majorities in both houses of Congress.  So prospects for constructive bipartisan action in a Clinton presidency would seem to be nil.

Instead, it’s now the Republicans who are talking about cures.

As noted here in 2014, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) is leading an effort in the House.   Earlier this year, as also noted here, GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee beat Biden to the “moon shot” punch; as Huckabee said, if we did it before, we can do it again.  And Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), a member of the Senate Commerce and Science and also he powerful chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee—the campaign arm for the Senate GOP—has unveiled the EUREKA (Ensuring Useful Research Expenditures is Key for Alzheimer’s) Act.

And now, perhaps most consequentially, comes a sitting US Senator who is also running for the Republican nomination.

In a new piece for National Review headlined, “Let’s Revive America’s Culture of Cures and Innovation,” Ted Cruz outlined a comprehensive assault on disease, fully deserving the appellation, “Cure Strategy.”

As Cruz put it: “It’s time to open wide the frontier for innovation. We have an opportunity to unharness solutions that could be the difference between a lifetime of pain and suffering, even death, and a life full of promise and strength.  America has always chosen the latter, and I am confident we will again.”

That’s the voice of a Republican John F. Kennedy.   And Cruz is not just talking, he is doing—he has introduced bold legislation to reform the hidebound Food and Drug Administration.    Alas, to be sure, nothing happens quickly in Washington these days, but it’s also true that no goal is achieved without a solid beginning.  And Cruz has made a solid beginning.

Obama and Biden had their chance to lead a pro-cures effort, and instead, they led us into a quagmire of health-insurance wrangling.

So it’s fitting that the torch be passed to a new generation of Republicans.


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