Progressives & patience: A look at how we got Obamacare

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 Obamacare didn’t happen overnight. For the last 75 years, progressives have trotted out the idea of compulsory health care or subsidized national health insurance every decade or so, been defeated, and then gone back to the drawing board.

Their tenaciousness finally paid off in 2010 when Congress by the narrowest of margins passed a bill with no Republican votes, and President Obama signed into law his “signature” achievement. No wonder Vice President Biden took the opportunity on that occasion to tell the president that passing health-care reform was a “big f---ing deal.”

But now that the fruits of national health insurance are starting to be harvested in the form of higher premiums, higher deductibles, and higher taxes (and paradoxically more people becoming uninsured), it might be time to revisit some of the warnings that doctors and politicians shouted for the past three-quarters of a century. Nationalized health insurance might be a big deal, but it is not necessarily a good deal.

You can find strains of the argument for socialized medicine back into the 19th century, but let’s give credit for national transformation where it is due and start with Franklin Roosevelt. Once the president’s New Deal had transformed banking, welfare, unemployment, retirement, housing, public works, and labor relations, it was time to move on to health care.

Roosevelt passed on including national health insurance in his Social Security bill of 1935 because of opposition by the American Medical Association, but he didn’t give up. In 1938, he called a National Health Conference in Washington, D.C.

A report by D.C. insider columnist Rodney Dutcher describes the program envisioned by Roosevelt in terms that are almost indistinguishable from what passed in 2010:

“New Dealers have in mind a grant-in-aid plan which would encourage states to set up their own health insurance schemes within certain federal standards, the federal and state governments to contribute funds to the general program in each co-operating state. Health insurance systems to be supported by payroll contributions would go side by side with arrangements, especially in rural areas, for setting up new public health services by taxation and local contributions.”

No wonder it was so easy for congressional staffers to write up the 2,000-plus page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 — all they had to do was dust off the original proposal by FDR and change a few terms. “Health insurance schemes” became “health exchanges,” for instance, and “public health services” became “community health centers.”

There was also the same “human theater” that President Obama specializes in when trying to turn political decisions into emotional ones instead. But whereas Obama had “the fainting girl” at his October press conference to reassure us that YES WE CAN sign on to (it just may take a while!), FDR had what a headline writer for the Joplin (Mo.) News Herald called “Slums Girl.”

Florence Greenberg was trotted out at the National Health Conference in 1938 to sell the desperation of the working class in a pitch to convince the AMA to stop fighting the president. Despite the string of (presumably) fake pearls and cunning hair-do she sported for an AP wire photo, Miss Greenberg was plaintive and forlorn as she made the case for why the government should make health care one of “the inalienable rights” of every citizen.

In essence, Greenberg was the 1930s version of the 1980s version of Barack Obama — a community organizer from Chicago’s South Side, she was the saddest thing this side of a hobo camp. 

The overcome AP reporter gushed that, “Miss ... Greenberg, who never had ridden on a railroad train before she traveled here,” told the conference delegates, “my people — the steel workers, the packing house workers, the International Harvester workers, did not know what it means to demand that their needs, their lives, their happiness be considered,” but now they are demanding “our government take health from the list of luxuries to be bought only by money.”

Gosh, if that girl were still around today, she would have no problem being elevated to U.S. Senate on the basis of her oratory alone, just as President Obama was. Being a friend of the “packing house workers,” Greenberg was very likely also a friend of Saul Alinsky — the godfather of community organizers — who was just then trying to organize the meat packers into a political force.

And although every proponent of national health insurance from FDR forward has denied that it is “socialized medicine,” it is no accident that the proponents of nationalization of medical care are all avid progressives who see an expanded role for the federal government in almost every aspect of our lives. 

Socialism traditionally has meant that the means of production or distribution of a product or service are owned by the government. But that definition is as antiquated as a horse-and-buggy doctor. The overarching power of our massive federal government to direct and command certain results through regulation and legislation is in some ways far beyond anything Karl Marx would even have imagined possible. Controlling the means of production is much more important than owning it, so yes, the term socialized medicine does fit the agenda of the progressive left.

But so does patience.

There is a perhaps apocryphal story told about Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times as the Socialist Party candidate from 1928 to 1948. The story was repeated frequently by Ronald Reagan when he was an actor campaigning against socialized medicine in 1961. 

According to Reagan and others, Thomas said “the American people would never vote for socialism” but that “under the name of liberalism the American people will adopt every fragment of the socialist program.” 

That may not be entirely true yet, but they are still working on it. Rome didn’t fall in a day.

Frank Miele is the editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana.


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