There was plenty of time on the debate stage to rehash everything we already knew about the candidates’ positions on health care more broadly but with only weeks until New Hampshire’s primary, none of the candidates seemingly feel it necessary to bring up the greatest public health crisis the state currently faces.
Mortality rates for the young and middle-aged in the state are surging. A recent study
showed that New Hampshire had the highest increase in deaths for those 25-64 in the entire nation, with many of the deaths attributable to overdoses. As someone who struggled with an opioid addiction, calls New Hampshire home and now lives in a neighborhood with one of the highest fentanyl overdose rates in the country, the issue is personal.
I’ve gone to see most of the candidates and even asked a handful of them direct questions about their drug and addiction policies. While not all of their policies are perfect, their plans tend to take some important steps forward. But there is only one candidate who makes the issue an extended part of every stump speech. They addressed the epidemic head-on earlier and more often than any other candidate I’ve seen. Their supporters likely believe that this is the only person who can and will fight for their communities and truly make a difference on the issue.
That candidate is President Donald J. Trump.
By my rough count, Trump dedicated as much time to the issue in his last speech in New Hampshire than it’s been given in all Democratic debates so far combined.
Trump talked about the opioid crisis consistently through the 2016 election. He gained ardent followers
who were single-issue voters on the belief that he could save their communities. Once in office, he failed to give the issue the time and attention in governing that he had committed to it during campaigning. But that doesn’t mean he won’t campaign on it again.
An initial budget proposal
from the administration in 2017 almost cut funding
to the Drug Control Office by 95% — until bipartisan outcry saved a majority of the funding.
Tom Marino, Trump’s first appointee for the “drug czar” position, withdrew his name
after it came out that he had backed legislation restricting law enforcement from clamping down on diverted opioids and pill mills.
Funding for treatment has increased but is far from adequate. Modest criminal justice reform still hasn’t rolled back the war on drugs, and the attorney general’s office is working to stop
proven harm reduction measures that save lives, such as safe injection sites, from operating in local communities.
For Trump, the issue seemingly isn’t one to fix but is rhetorical fuel for the fire. When he talks about overdoses, the next topic is often immigration. How do you get a crowd in the Midwest or states with northern borders to become voters motivated by a call to build a wall thousands of miles away? Tell them the southern border is the source of the epidemic destroying their communities and that a wall is the way to fix it
During his last speech
in New Hampshire, he made his talking points of the drug crisis and immigration crisis one and the same, saying, “at the center of America’s drug crisis is the border crisis.” He gives his crowds a story to believe about how and why they are seeing their friends, family and loved ones dying at record rates. The problem is not with American society or failed domestic policies but Democrats who, he claims, want open borders
It doesn’t matter that most of the drugs that do come in through the southern border are smuggled through ports of entry, not in between space where a wall would go. It doesn’t matter that the drug is easily synthesized in a lab, or that much of New Hampshire’s supply is locally manufactured in, and distributed from, Massachusetts
The narrative that Trump is giving is a story that people believe, and it has worked before. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
was driven in part by the economic anxieties of native-born railroad workers, but anti-Chinese sentiment was also fueled by fears of opium dens
. Prohibition mixed concerns about alcohol with discrimination against Irish, Italian and other European immigrants. Fear of crack cocaine and black men gave us mass incarceration. The list of mixing fear of drugs with racism and xenophobia is long.
Most of the Trump supporters I talk to do not see themselves as anti-immigrant; they see themselves as supporting the guy who will protect their family and community. Here is how
Trump put it to his supporters here in New Hampshire: “Even though many people that come into our country are wonderful people … we have serious, serious criminals that want to come in, and if we had open borders, they would be flowing in like you’ve never seen before. Democrats want open borders, they don’t mind crime. We do mind crime and that’s the way it is.”
You can’t combat this argument by appealing to facts about crime, how immigrants add to the economy or even our nation’s immigrant heritage. People feel afraid of an epidemic they don’t understand, and Trump provides a story that explains what they are seeing. If Democrats can’t counter with a compelling narrative, Trump’s version will win the day. He called my state a “drug-infested den,”
because that is precisely the problem his supporters see, and what he promises to fix.
While addressing addiction and the overdose crisis doesn’t make it into the top list of issues motivating voters, Americans agree
that it is a bigger problem facing our country than any other issue. It is impossible to disentangle from other leading issues such as immigration and health care.
Democrats aren’t ignoring the issue, but they aren’t campaigning on it as they should. They are missing the opportunity to talk about compassion, looking out for your neighbors, and the fundamental dignity of every human being. It’s an epidemic that has devastated many communities where Trump’s support is strong, and Trump has broken his promise to make a real difference.
There is one more debate before New Hampshire voters go to the polls. The candidates have another chance for a substantive discussion on how to address the overdose crisis. Trump will make his case, but will the Democrats?