Columns » Ernest Dumas

The stupid and the timid



People will find out, though probably not soon enough, how much they like the health insurance reform law that Congress enacted this week just as it took scant years for them to embrace history's other great mandatory insurance acts, Social Security, unemployment and disability insurance, and Medicare.

When they discover that the fearful claims from Republicans and the insurance industry about the legislation — the government takeover of medicine, socialism, death panels, taxpayer-funded abortions and ruinous taxes — were all lies, the bold talk about repeal will recede into whispers even if Republicans regain congressional majorities.

It may take a little more time than current Democrats think they have but in a short period the Republicans will be in the same place that President Dwight Eisenhower found himself 18 months into his presidency in 1954. His right-wing brother Edgar had accused him of betraying Republican principles and demanded that the president try to repeal the New Deal reforms now that Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for the first time since Herbert Hoover. Eisenhower wrote him that if any political party tried to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance and federal labor laws “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

People who advocate it, Ike said, are just plain “stupid.”

The idea, so popular with Republicans this week, that it is unconstitutional for Congress to impose laws that insure economic security for Americans, is equally foolish, Eisenhower said. He would brand the people who this week are advocating that Arkansas and other states nullify the insurance law what they are: “stupid.”

Already, we can begin to see history's winners and sinners from the act of bringing health security to 32 million people and guaranteeing it for all the rest of us.

The big winner is the black president with the Middle Eastern name who became the fulcrum of the debate. Those who insist that bigotry had nothing to do with the ferocity of the protests against health reform, who missed the code words and angry inferences in the Arkansas town hall meetings and the letters to the editor, need to have heard the epithets thrown at African-American lawmakers from the threatening crowd on Capitol Hill Sunday.

On the other side, liberals had pronounced the president a failure for doing too little and trimming his sails to the lateral winds.

But in the testiest political climate since the Civil War, Barack Obama achieved what seven other presidents — three Republicans and four Democrats, great, near-great and mediocre, conservative and liberal — set out and failed miserably to do, even when their parties owned big majorities in Congress.

If you do what a few of the country's most masterly politicians — two Roosevelts, Truman, Nixon and Clinton — could not do, have you not staked a good claim on history's majesty?

By all rights, of course, Obama should share the laurels of history with Richard Nixon, whose Republican insurance plan of 1974 became the template for the Democrat-Obama plan. The Republican plan of the '70s, which would have become law had Nixon not been forced to resign and Wilbur Mills not been scandalized at the Tidal Basin, put the burden on all U. S. businesses to pay for most of the cost of insurance for every American worker and his family, which would be bought from private insurance exchanges like those in the new law.

The Democrats who voted for this year's bill, many of them knowing how scant and distorted was their voters' knowledge of this necessarily complicated legislation, will get credit from the next generation, and from this one largely, too.

So how do we judge Arkansas's delegation, whose political forebears voted almost every one for the mandatory insurance laws that undergirded the economic security of their descendants?

Five of the six Arkansas members of Congress voted for one or another of the slightly differing versions of the new law and all of them, reflecting the overwhelming persuasion of their constituents only a year ago, proclaimed the desperate need for exactly the kind of sweeping changes that it makes. But only two of the six — Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Vic Snyder — voted unequivocally and consistently to put health reform into law.

Rep. Mike Ross helped draft the most liberal version of the bill and voted it out of the Energy and Commerce Committee, only to hear the threats of the tea party shakers and take a powder on its enactment.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln backed and filled for a year, voted for the Senate bill that she helped write and that became the heart of the law, but then denounced the use of a majority-vote rule and cast herself against final enactment of the compromise. It made little logic and even less political sense. She enraged every side of the issue.

Rep. Marion Berry voted for and then against virtually identical bills and couldn't articulate a sensible explanation for his baffling behavior. The most plausible theory was that he didn't want to saddle his handpicked successor with a vote that might be unpopular with some big people in the district and he was willing to sacrifice his own principles and the verdict of history.

There's a good book on contemporary Arkansas politicians waiting. Profiles in Timidity.

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