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What History Will Say About Obamacare and the Government Shutdown

What History Will Say About Obamacare and the Government Shutdown

We sometimes don’t notice history as it’s unfolding right before us, so let’s stop and take note of what a historically momentous day Tuesday was. Twenty, 50 years from now, when historians or college professors are trying to describe to their readers and students what the difference was between the two political parties in our time, they will direct them to October 1, 2013. That one day says it all.

The Democratic Party was opening up its historic program to bring health care to all citizens, and the Republican Party was closing down the federal government, a fanatical minority manipulating the rules of our democracy and holding a gun to the country’s head, all because it wants to deny all citizens health care and is furious that it failed three times in that effort.

Tuesday perfectly expressed what these two parties have come to be about. The Democrats have many flaws, and money has corrupted them at certain times on certain issues almost as much as it has corrupted Republicans. And yes, sometimes some Democrats behave divisively, too. But at least they have had good moments, even great ones. The passage of Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid. Civil rights (and please, you cynical Everett Dirksen-invokers, give it a rest and go away; you would have long since drummed Dirksen out of your party today). Women’s rights. And most recently gay rights, including same-sex marriage; history will recall Barack Obama with admiration as the first sitting president willing to voice his support for that.

This is where you might expect me to say the evil Republicans were implacably opposed to every one of these great advances at every turn. But that isn’t the case. In 1935, majorities of Republicans backed Social Security—not by anywhere near the percentages Democrats did, but they supported it. Thirty years later, about half of Republicans in both houses of Congress backed Medicare and Medicaid. And yes, Dirksen and other Republicans were important allies for Lyndon Johnson on civil rights against the racist and reactionary Southern wing of his own party.

The GOP was wagging the tail of the dog of history in those days—while it wasn’t leading the fights, a respectable number of Republicans signed onto them. Still, wagging a tail is a far sight better than cutting one off with a rusty serrated knife. And that’s all the party of resentment does these days.

Universal health care has been discussed in the United States for a century. It never succeeded before because of the powerful business and vested interests that opposed it. In Harry Truman’s day, the American Medical Association assessed its members an extra $25 in dues to fight Truman’s universal health care plan, and the AMA won.

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