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Newt's Ideas Worth Considering

A Commentary By Tony Blankley

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of sheer misguided reporting than the story in The Washington Post last weekend in which it was reported that "Newt Gingrich thinks he can revive his debilitated campaign by talking about Alzheimer's. ... For most presidential candidates, Alzheimer's is a third- or fourth-tier subject, at best. But as Gingrich sees it, Alzheimer's, as well as other niche topics such as military families' concerns and pharmaceutical issues, are priorities. ... By offering himself as a champion of pet causes, Gingrich believes he can sew together enough narrow constituencies to make a coalition -- an unconventional one, yes, but a coalition nevertheless."

Now, I admit, Newt is my old boss, and I am a friend and great admirer of Newt's -- so I am hardly an unbiased source. But I also happen to be pretty familiar with Newt's public ideas over the years.

And to read the article in question, one would think that Newt thought up this little "niche" Alzheimer's issue a couple of weeks ago -- just in time for his revived campaign. Well, in fact, I remember Newt talking to me about the coming crisis in Alzheimer's disease back in the 1990s. And in 2007, the Alzheimer's Association, along with the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer's Disease, called for the creation of the Alzheimer's Study Group. Newt was named co-chairman (along with former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey).

On March 20, 2009, they reported back to the Democratic-controlled Senate. Newt and study group member and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging. You should watch the hearing from C-SPAN's archives. Newt's testimony was brilliant. Senators -- both Democratic and Republican -- asked Newt question after question and were enthralled with his deep understanding of the issue. Newt even offered, spontaneously in the hearing, an explanation of the unique challenges of the mathematical processes in Alzheimer's research.

Although the reporter of the article last weekend obviously doesn't know, Alzheimer's is not a "niche" issue.

The bipartisan study Newt co-chaired reported that unless there are breakthroughs in the diagnosis, treatment and reduction in the rate of Alzheimer's, Medicare and Medicaid will spend nearly $20 trillion on the treatment and care of the disease by the middle of the century -- $1 trillion a year by 2050.

The report explained: "The Alzheimer's crisis, like the disease itself, will unfold gradually, making it all too easy to ignore until we have little opportunity to alter its impact. ... If we fail to address the Alzheimer's crisis now, we face the prospect of losing lives and dollars on much larger scale. ... Alzheimer's disease is already the Nation's third most expensive disease, costing the Federal Government alone more than $100 billion per year. ... An investment in Alzheimer's is not only good social policy, it is an economic necessity."

Yeah, just another $20 trillion "niche" issue. The fact that the Post story was correct in saying that for most presidential candidates, Alzheimer's is a third- or fourth-tier issue is not a good argument for the other candidates.

Breakthroughs in Alzheimer's and diabetes -- another issue Newt has seen coming and been fighting hard for at least since the 1995 Medicare reform bill -- would, by themselves, largely solve our Medicare and Medicaid cost problems. Too bad Washington didn't take Newt's advice two decades ago.

Consider the other "niche" and "pet" issues the Post story sneered at Newt for discussing -- pharmaceutical costs and taking care of military families. Well, pharmaceutical therapy is now "the cornerstone of modern medicine," according to David J. Gibson, M.D. "It is the primary mode of treatment for over 85 percent of conditions that, without therapy, would result in the need for hospitalization of the patient." It is approaching 20 percent of medical expenses -- and going up fast. Some "pet" issue.

As for the cost of taking care of our veterans and military families, anyone remotely familiar with the projections of the defense budget knows that if we don't both improve the attitude toward and better manage the cost, we will risk both a lower volunteer rate and an unsustainable cost increase. Once again, Newt has been advocating shrewdly about this matter at least since the 1990s, when he used to discuss it with me and others. Of course, Newt came from a military family, so he had an unfair advantage in understanding the issue.

At a time when the combined intellect of the Congress and the executive branch can't seem to think its way to even an interim solution to a single problem on our nation's ever-expanding list of dreadful problems, perhaps the media (and the public) might want to stop sneering and take a serious look at Newt's "ideas." He's got a lot of them -- and every one would be an improvement over current trends (about which about 3 in 4 Americans believe we are going in the wrong direction).

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington. E-mail him at TonyBlankley@gmail.com.

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