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The Trailer: First, do no harm: The drug policy fight that explains the midterms

“That meant progress,” said Tula, the executive director of the National Harm Reduction Coalition. “Progress! We’ve been fighting for federal support for 30 years.”

On Dec. 8, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) opened the grant program and published its conditions. Two months later, the feds are scrambling to promise that “no federal funding” will be used for crack pipes or other pipes used to smoke drugs, after a conservative news site asked whether “safe smoking kits” would be eligible for grants — and, learning that they were, suggested that the government would be funding “the distribution of crack pipes to drug addicts.”

Safe smoking kits typically include a rubber mouthpiece to prevent cuts and burns, brass screens to filter contaminants and disinfectant wipes, not pipes. But the story of SAMHSA’s harm reduction funding was the 2022 midterm campaign at hyper-speed. A program that liberals saw as common-sensical, that few if anyone in their ideological space was opposed to, careened into the reality of conservative backlash. 

Every Republican criticism, from the potential distribution of “smoking kits” to a requirement that grant applicants explain how they could advance racial “equity,” was based on something in the government’s own announcements. A proposal that no Republican had attacked since its passage became, suddenly, an issue that epitomized the craziness they were running against.

“During a violent crime surge nationwide, and city centers grappling with addicts camping on the street, how ‘free taxpayer-funded crack pipes’ made it past even one person at [the Department of Health and Human Services] is mind-boggling,” said Will Ritter, a Republican ad-maker who helped elect Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). “I write ads all day, and I would struggle to invent something that would say more clearly that Democrats don’t understand the frustration of voters.”

Harm reduction activists were used to this. The idea of giving drug users sterilized equipment dates back to the 1970s; the backlash grew up along beside it. Congress banned federal funding for needle exchange programs in 1988, with bipartisan support. In 1998, when the Clinton administration was considering whether to reverse that policy, its own drug czar came out against it, smothering the idea for the rest of his presidency. 

The ban didn’t get lifted until 2016, when Republicans in states staggered by the opioid crisis saw a new virtue in harm reduction. By the time the Biden administration was staffing up, and passing the American Rescue Plan, harm reduction policies were almost totally uncontroversial among liberals. The creation of the grants made little news outside of outlets that cover drug policy; even the Trump administration had embraced some aspects of harm reduction.

The cities most supportive of providing needles and other equipment were overwhelmingly Democratic, with momentum shifting from simply allowing supplies to be distributed, to New York City authorizing two supervised injection sites in November. A battle over proposed supervised injection sites, between the city of Philadelphia and Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain, unfolded in a crucial presidential swing state during the presidential election. The Trump administration sued over it, but neither Trump nor Biden talked about it on the trail — and a year into Biden’s presidency, only New York has opened safe injection sites. (McSwain is now a Republican candidate for governor.) 

The politics changed dramatically in a few hours this week. At 5 a.m. on Monday, as the grant application period closed, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, went live with a report on how the Biden administration was “set to fund the distribution of crack pipes to drug addicts as part of its plan to advance ‘racial equity.’” 

An HHS spokesman had confirmed that the grants could fund smoking kits; the statement never mentioned pipes, and such kits typically do not include them. The president’s Inauguration Day order on “advancing racial equity” applied to every grant application, a fact that was uncontroversial among Democrats, but scandalous among Republicans.

Republicans who hadn’t previously reacted to the harm reduction grants, part of a bill they’d voted against, reacted with disbelief. Dozens of candidates and members of Congress denounced federal funds potentially being used for safe smoking kits and other conservative news outlets aggregated the story, often emphasizing the “racial equity” component to ask whether the whole process, from intent to execution, was racist.

“The racist, condescending view of non-Whites by the Biden Administration,” wrote Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), one of three Black Republicans in Congress. “Imagine thinking taxpayer-funded crack pipes is aiding ‘racial equity.’” Some Republicans characterized the entire program as $30 million for crack pipe distribution; some asked if Biden had a personal interest in distributing crack pipes.

“Will Hunter Biden be running this program or will he just take his free crack pipe and head home?” asked Mike Collins, a Republican running for Congress in Georgia, referring to the well-publicized drug addiction of the president’s son.

The “crack pipe” story ran frequently on Fox News and its affiliates before the administration had a response. It did not get the same pickup outside conservative media, which added to the backlash, especially after the fact-checking website Snopes judged one version of the story — “Did Biden Admin ‘Fund Crack Pipes’ To ‘Advance Racial Equity’?” — to be false, before the HHS had clarified the policy. On Wednesday, HHS and the Office of National Drug Control Policy announced that “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits,” a clear position that White House press secretary Jen Psaki took into the briefing room.

“HHS put out the statement because there was inaccurate information out there, and we wanted to provide clarification on the allowable uses for the HHS Harm Reduction program,” said Psaki. “It’s not a change in policy.” But there are numerous policies that fit under the “harm reduction” umbrella, eligible for grants, and when Psaki pointed out that even Republicans supported some of this, Republicans pushed back.

“We know they save lives; they help connect people to treatment and recovery,” said Psaki. “And they were endorsed this week by a bipartisan commission co-chaired by Senator Tom Cotton that examines steps we must take to address the devastating toll of overdoses.”

Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler pointed out that the bipartisan opioid commission had recommended “fentanyl test strips and the use of Narcan by first responders,” not anything else that Psaki was talking about. “If Ms. Psaki is suggesting that safe smoking kits or safe injection sites are endorsed by the opioid commission, she is mistaken,” Tabler wrote in an email. But the commission’s proposals synced up with some of what harm reduction advocates were asking for.

“The reality is that abstinence is not for everyone all of the time, right?” said Tula of the National Harm Reduction Coalition. “What does a harm reduction program do? It doesn’t just protect people who use drugs from overdose and disease. It helps to restore hope and lets them know that we’re here until they’re ready to make changes.”

The events leading up to the “crack pipe” fury are easily repeatable, given the Biden administration’s policy ideas, and the ways that Republicans and conservatives are approaching them. Biden’s opponents start with the premise that Democrats are willing to let cities, and civilization, fall apart, and that “racial equity” initiatives are paternalistic racism. Conservative activists trying to root racial politics out of school curriculums, government programs and corporate trainings search for mentions of “equity” or “DEI” (“diversity, equity and inclusion”) to make them infamous — and, where possible, eliminate them.

Many Democrats aren’t sure how anyone could believe that. Their response to most policy backlashes is shaped by what the liberal political analyst Ruy Teixeira calls the “Fox News Fallacy”: “The idea that if Fox News … criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often.” The Biden administration wasn’t setting up a crack pipe distribution program — but it never occurred to Democrats that they could even be accused of it.

By Thursday morning, the White House and HHS were on record preventing federal funding for “crack pipes.” That did not end the story, which had taken a new shape as Republicans called for a ban on “crack pipes” ever being considered in government grants — whether or not that was ever going to happen.

“I am glad the Biden administration acknowledges sending crack pipes to our nation’s addicts is a bad idea,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a statement after Psaki’s clarification. If they were serious, he said, they could back legislation to prevent this. “It is pure insanity to think the federal government would fund crack pipe distribution.” And on Thursday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) announced that he would co-sponsor Rubio’s bill — the Cutting off Rampant Access to Crack Kits Act, or CRACK.

Remember May 2021? We’re doing it again, only angrier this time.

On the ground in the places the Cheneys used to be welcomed.

Legitimate political discourse, day six.

The plot against Antrim County.

The greatest North American team-up since NAFTA.

It didn’t sound like the usual speech from Missouri state Sen. Denny Hoskins.

“Hey, young blood, doesn’t it feel like our time is running out?” the Republican legislator said Monday, holding the Senate floor in Jefferson City by quoting the band Fall Out Boy. “I’m going to change you like a remix, then I’ll raise you like a phoenix.” 

Hoskins and the rest of the Senate’s conservative caucus were in the beginning stages of a filibuster that, as of this writing, has not ended yet. The goal: preventing the adoption of a new congressional map that would maintain the GOP’s 6-to-2 delegation advantage. Instead, the eight-member conservative caucus, a faction of the 24-member GOP supermajority, wanted a map that would replace the traditionally Democratic 5th Congressional District in Kansas City with a swing seat that Republicans could win.

“Missouri is a red state that voted for Donald Trump by 15 points,” state Sen. Bob Onder (R) said last month, before the debate and the filibuster began. “Do we want to send more liberal Democrats who will support Nancy Pelosi’s anti-gun, anti-life, anti-election integrity, pro-socialist radical agenda, or do we want to send more pro-life Republicans, pro-gun Republicans, Republicans who will support Donald J. Trump’s ‘make America great again’ agenda?”

While not every member of the caucus has voted against the GOP leadership’s maps, their filibuster has frozen the state Senate, creating some risk that the legislature will run out of time and a court will end up drawing new maps. 

The conservatives’ argument is simple. Republicans have a once-in-a-decade shot to squeeze Democrats out of a House seat, and Democrats in states they control — like Illinois, right next door — have done so unapologetically. Their opponents aren’t arguing for a boost to Democrats, warning instead that a too-ambitious map would risk Democrats flipping back a swing seat, and perhaps the Democratic-trending 2nd Congressional District outside St. Louis, before the end of the decade.

“Voting for a 7-1 map doesn’t get you to heaven. Accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior does,” Republican state Sen. Sandy Crawford told the Missouri Independent this week, responding to an angry email that warned she would go to hell if she didn’t reduce Democrats from two seats to one.

Kansas City, Kan., was at the center of the week’s other major red state redistricting battle, with Republicans going to extraordinary lengths to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) veto of a map that removed Democratic precincts from the 3rd Congressional District, represented since 2019 by Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.). Republicans had struggled to line up the votes at first, but they got them  — and they crossed the override threshold when state Rep. Michael Houser (R), who had been sidelined by illness and is known to have refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, showed up for the vote with an oxygen tank.

Jake Corman, “Not Your Average Political Ad.” How does yet another Pennsylvania Republican break out in the overstuffed gubernatorial primary? Corman, who’s hired ad-makers who worked for Youngkin, appears in a zip-up vest, then — to the sound of a record skip — introduces his daughter, who wanted him to avoid a generic campaign ad. A flamboyant rock star with a guitar, not unlike the rock imp from a recent Dr. Pepper ad campaign, shreds whenever Corman describes away he battled outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf (D). “I fought him in court, so we could audit the 2020 election,” says Corman, earning a very brief guitar solo.

Jim Lamon for Senate, “Super Bowl Ad.” Lamon’s string of comedic ads continues with a spot the Arizona Republican is buying during the Super Bowl, previewed on Thursday. In it, Lamon portrays a gunslinger defending a town from bandits representing his political foes: “Old Joe” Biden, “Shifty” Mark Kelly and “Crazyface” Nancy Pelosi. In the 30-second version, Lamon shoots a gun out of Kelly’s hand, which got an immediate reaction from the Democratic senator’s allies — Lamon’s political career began when Kelly’s wife, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and badly wounded. It took just minutes for the gun control group Moms Demand Action to denounce it.

Michael Collins, “Real Vernon Jones.” With his gubernatorial campaign going nowhere, former state legislator Vernon Jones, a Democrat-turned-Republican, switched parties to run for Georgia’s 10th Congressional District. Collins, the owner of a trucking company and son of a former congressman, was already running there. “What do you get when you cross a con man, a carpetbagger and a Democrat with a rap sheet?” asks the narrator at the top of Collins’s first attack ad. That’s the setup for more than a dozen hits on Jones, from a rape allegation from the early 2000s to the fact that Jones’s career has mostly been in DeKalb County, a deeply Democratic and majority-Black part of the Atlanta area that, to some Republicans, embodies bad-idea liberalism.

Kay Ivey for Governor, “Nice.” Biden-bashing is becoming more and more common in Republican advertising. Really, why wouldn’t it? Ivey, who’s just two years younger than the president but has embraced her “Governor Meemaw” image while campaigning in Alabama, simply tells the viewer that she was taught not to say anything about people if she couldn’t say something nice, then pauses after mentioning Joe Biden. “Bless his heart,” Ivey says in a stinger, deploying a Southern expression that does not really mean “bless his heart.”

Texans for Henry Cuellar, “Most Bipartisan.” Most candidates in party primaries run toward their base. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) is doing the opposite in this spot, running right before the start of early voting, mentioning his support for “lowering health-care costs” alongside his support for tax cuts and law enforcement funding. “While people in Washington fight each other,” Cuellar asks, “who will fight for us?” Cuellar’s been in Congress since 2005, but that line is meant to portray his left-wing primary challengers as the sort of ideologues really ruining everything in D.C.

Approve: 41% (-8 since Dec. 2021)
Disapprove: 58% (-7)

CNN’s Biden poll numbers had consistently been higher than their competitors —  but no longer. This survey, conducted when the standoff between Russia and Ukraine was dominating the news, finds the lowest support for Biden of his presidency so far, with negative ratings on every tested issue. In December, Biden was still above water on the question of “handling the coronavirus pandemic.” His rating on that issue has fallen by 9 points, with 54 percent of adults here disapproving of the pandemic response. And that makes it his third-strongest issue —  Biden only tests better on handling education (46 approval) and “protecting democracy in America” (46 percent).

“Which do you consider the best measure of how the national economy is doing?” (YouGov, 1500 adults)

The stock market index: 5%
Unemployment rate/job reports: 18%
Price of goods/services: 51%
Personal finances: 12%

Here’s a useful and relatively new way of asking voters about inflation, which for the past six months has surpassed every other economic issue on voters’ minds. Every demographic group picks “prices” as their test of how the economy is performing. No group is more intense in that feeling than Americans over 65 — just 27 percent of them say their test of a good economy is something other than “prices.” Democrats and other supporters of the president are the most likely to focus on the unemployment rate, now 4 percent, which the White House has increasingly cited in statements, news conferences and charts designed to be pilloried on Twitter. Yet that’s not a majority position, even among them, with fewer than 30 percent of Biden voters, Democrats and self-identified liberals saying the economy’s health is best measured by unemployment rates.

Illinois. On Tuesday, we wrote about a complicated scandal in Illinois’s 6th Congressional District, where Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) is the subject of a House ethics investigation into her hiring of Iymen Chehade as a foreign policy adviser. Chehade, who considered running in the same seat as Newman two years ago, was hired after writing a foreign policy memo laying out a low six-figure salary and some terms; Newman has denied that he was hired to remove a political obstacle.

As the story was being published, Chehade answered some emailed questions about his work with Newman. While running for Congress in the new 3rd Congressional District, Chehade continues to “advise Marie Newman’s campaign on foreign policy, an important topic for her district’s constituents, and draft policy papers on various foreign policy matters,” he wrote.

“For example, I drafted policy papers on Israel/Palestine and Kashmir, two interlinked issues that her constituents and progressives care about because of the ongoing apartheid in Palestine and the human rights violations in both of those areas,” wrote Chehade. “That work is completely separate from my work on my own campaign, and I do both simultaneously.”

Newman’s opponents, including the Democratic Majority for Israel, had questioned whether the congresswoman’s advocacy for Palestinians was a result, entirely, of Chehade’s hiring. The adviser denied that.

“Rep. Newman’s position on Palestine/Israel had nothing to do with my running or not running,” he said. “Also, by the time we signed the employment contract, I had already abandoned the idea of running for reasons that had nothing to do with Rep. Newman’s job offer, and I informed her of that fact.”

“During our policy conversations, Rep. Newman recognized that it was important to…

Read More: The Trailer: First, do no harm: The drug policy fight that explains the midterms

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