Sunday, July 11, 2004

Well, they got the hair part right. “We think this is a dream team,” Sen. John Kerry announced at his first joint appearance with John Edwards. “We’ve got a better vision, real plans, better ideas. We’ve got a better sense of what’s happening in America — and we’ve got better hair.”

In the days before Mr. Kerry named his choice for the second spot on the ticket, commentators said the event’s importance was not so much whether the vice presidential pick could carry a state, far less a region, but what the choice revealed about the decision-maker. This was immediately forgotten in the bubbly aftermath, when everyone seemed to be gushing about a “charisma infusion” to the ticket.

But let’s not forget that John Edwards’ charisma, such as it is, comes at the expense of substance. If Mr. Kerry wins, the man who stands a heartbeat away from the Oval Office will be a first-term senator who never held public office before 1999 and voted irregularly. But he has quite a smile.

This selection is a teachable moment. Some polls suggest Mr. Edwards’ background as a trial lawyer is viewed more positively than negatively by voters. The Republican Party should tackle that head-on. Commentators swoon over Mr. Edwards’ “two Americas” stump speech — which disproves the common notion the one thing the press will not tolerate is hypocrisy.

John Edwards is a multimillionaire because he has extracted huge settlements in tort cases. Who pays the price for these multimillion dollar recoveries? Is it the corporate executives? Not at all. When juries hit up corporations for millions of dollars, executive salaries and jobs aren’t endangered. Corporations simply pass along the expense to consumers through higher prices. There is a tort premium on nearly every product you buy. To spell it out a bit further, it is the members of Mr. Edwards’ “other America” who paid for his success.

Mr. Edwards specialized in medical malpractice cases. The abuse of tort law in medicine has contributed to medical inflation (which Democrats then turn around and decry).

Because doctors are spooked by possible lawsuits, they order millions of dollars of unnecessary tests and procedures every year. And in some fields, like obstetrics, many doctors bail out altogether because the cost of malpractice insurance is so prohibitive. There are sections of this country where it is now impossible to find an obstetrician.

This is more than a practical problem. It’s a moral issue, as well. One of Mr. Edwards’ specialties, which made him millions, was suing obstetricians on behalf of babies with cerebral palsy. He mastered emotional appeals to juries. A signature line would refer to a brain-damaged child by name and say: “Jennifer cannot speak for herself. She can only speak through me. She doesn’t ask for your pity. She asks for your strength. She doesn’t ask for your sympathy, but for your courage.”

These “courageous” jurors would then come in with verdicts of millions against the doctor who delivered the baby and the hospital in which the birth took place. Mr. Edwards would pocket a third of the recovery.

There’s only one problem: The claim a Caesarean section would have prevented the cerebral palsy — the lynchpin of the plaintiffs’ cases — is dubious. As Dr. Murray Goldstein told CNS, “The overwhelming majority of children that are born with developmental brain damage, the ob/gyn could not have done anything about it. …” Dr. John Freeman, professor of neurology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, explained, “A great many of these cases are due to subtle infections of the child before birth.”

Besides, most children born with cerebral palsy never receive a penny through the tort system. Lawyers like Mr. Edwards take only the cases that seem winnable. And while Mr. Edwards calls his ambulance-chasing “helping the little guy,” he was careful to help those whose plight could benefit him, as well.

Sympathizers call it charisma. More realistically, Mr. Edwards is a smooth-talking salesman hawking a phony product.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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