Kerry's choice

Posted: Jul 09, 2004 12:00 AM

Well, they got the hair part right. "We think this is a dream team," Sen. 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 Kerry named his choice for the second spot on the ticket, commentators were saying that the importance of the event 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 lose sight of the fact that John Edwards' charisma, such as it is, comes at the expense of substance. If 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 are suggesting that Edwards' background as a trial lawyer is viewed more positively than negatively by voters. The Republican Party should tackle that head-on. The commentators are swooning over Edwards' "two Americas" stump speech -- which disproves the common assumption that 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, executives don't see their salaries cut or their jobs endangered. Corporations simply pass along the expense to consumers in the form of 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 Edwards' "other America" who have paid the price for his success.

 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 the possibility of lawsuits, they order millions of dollars of unnecessary tests and procedures every year. And in some fields, like obstetrics, many doctors are bailing 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.

 But this is more than a practical problem. It's a moral issue, as well. One of Edwards' specialties, on which he made millions, was suing obstetricians on behalf of babies with cerebral palsy. He mastered the emotional appeal to the jury. A signature line would refer to a brain-damaged child by name and then proceed with "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. Edwards would pocket a third of the recovery.

 There's only one problem: the claim that 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 Edwards take only the cases that seem winnable. And while Edwards calls his ambulance-chasing "helping the little guy," he was careful to help those whose plight he could exploit for his own benefit, as well.

 Sympathizers call it charisma. But a more realistic assessment is that Edwards is a smooth-talking salesman hawking a phony product.