Will Rogers was fond of saying, “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.” I don’t know whether to take heart from the fact that the Democrats’ current lack of focus and direction is not a new phenomenon, or to be discouraged by the fact that they’ve been this undisciplined for at least eighty years. It doesn’t much matter, I guess.
What does matter is that the Democratic Party is setting the stage to squander, once more, an opportunity to pass the first real healthcare reform legislation since 1965. If this comes to pass, and reform fails yet again, history demonstrates that it will be another generation or more before the window opens again. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands more Americans will die simply due to lack of access to adequate healthcare. Nearly forty-five thousand lives a year will continue to be lost until we finally do something about it. And it will not be the fault of the Republicans.
The Republican Party, as an institution, has never favored healthcare reform. It doesn’t view healthcare as a right, and therefore sees no role in it for government. They managed to get it removed from Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security legislation in 1935. They defeated it again, in the late 1940s, when Harry Truman urged congress to mandate healthcare for all Americans. Finally, in 1965, Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law, and it was generally believed that they were just the first step to universal health coverage. The political and fiscal toll of Vietnam, however, squashed that possibility.
For twenty of the next twenty-four years, the Executive Branch was helmed by Republicans, and serious healthcare reform was not raised again until 1993, when Bill Clinton was elected President. The Republicans, along with their traditional allies, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the American Medical Association, mustered all the money, pressure, propaganda, misinformation, half-truths, lies, and demagoguery they could bring to bear. Fear triumphed over reason, and healthcare reform was smothered in its crib. Lost for another sixteen years.
It was in this atmosphere, and with this history, that the Democratic Party sallied forth in 2009 on a quixotic quest to rally bipartisan support for major healthcare reform. In control of both houses of Congress, and the Executive Branch for the first time in fourteen years, and without the need for Republican votes, they have all but slain healthcare reform on the altar of bipartisanship. And it was completely unnecessary.
Because the Republicans see killing healthcare reform as crucial to embarrassing, and hopefully crippling, President Obama, there is no healthcare bill that will garner Republican support, even if they know for a certainty that it’s the best thing for America. Everything is secondary to diminishing Obama. Add to this the fact that most Republicans, like many Democrats, are financially beholden to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, there is no reason for anyone to expect Republican votes in favor of any healthcare reform that is not fully supported by the healthcare industry.
Everyone knew this, or should have known it, at the outset. The only thing achieved by catering to Republican demands was delay. Delay that gave opponents of reform time to raise the time-honored specters of “socialized medicine” and “government intrusion” and a few new ones, like “death panels.” And while all the typical Republican sleight-of-hand and fear mongering certainly hasn’t helped to advance the debate, it will not ultimately be what guts reform. The Democrats will accomplish this all by themselves.
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He has also accepted approximately 3.5 million dollars from insurance and other health industry contributors, almost three and a half times the amount accepted by the average senator. With the help of a handful of “Blue Dog” Democrats, his committee will be responsible for producing a healthcare reform bill that is little more than a huge gift basket to the healthcare industry. The elected senators and congressmen who are most opposed to real reform, Democrat or Republican, are the ones who have taken the most money from the industries that would be affected by it. Pardon my cynicism for seeing a connection.
The bill about to emerge from the Senate Finance Committee will leave millions of Americans still uninsured. It will subsidize some low income Americans, but not nearly everyone who cannot afford coverage. It will not include a public option for those who do not have and cannot afford coverage on the open market. It will not address the cost of premiums, or deductibles, or copayments, or care, or medications. The bill, in its present form, will not protect Americans with “preexisting conditions” and it will leave the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to continue business as usual at the expense of the American people.
The good news for Republicans in all of this is that they should retake control of one or more branches of the government, and rightfully so. The American people gave the Democrats large majorities in both houses, and the presidency, because the Republicans under George Bush and Dick Cheney had forfeited their right to govern. They had, as Americans saw it, done such a poor job that it was time to give the other side an opportunity to show what they could do.
When Republicans were in charge, they did what they wanted. All the whining and crying from Democrats didn’t even slow them down. Their attitude was, “We won. We’re the majority. Shut up and sit down.”
If the Democratic majority, with a Democratic president, cannot come together to produce the cornerstone legislation that was promised to the American people, and that a large majority of Americans still want and expect, then they will forfeit their right to govern. And they cannot blame the Republicans for the failure of healthcare reform. The Republicans were doing what they always do. Anyone who was surprised by it is a fool. It is up to the Democrats to ignore Republicans and do what they know is right. So far, they haven’t shown a willingness to do that. And if they can’t fix it, they will pay the price.