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TOP OF THE TICKET

Same healthcare arguments, just decades earlier

When Medicare came into existence in 1965, those opposed - including Ronald Reagan - cried of socialism and loss of freedom.

March 28, 2010|By Johanna Neuman

President Harry S. Truman is considered the grandfather of universal healthcare, having first proposed it in 1945. "The health of American children, like their education, should be recognized as a definite public responsibility," he said.

Twenty years later, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare Act into law, he invited Truman, then 81 years old, to be at his side. Then LBJ enrolled Truman as the first beneficiary of the new program that provided healthcare for the 65-and-older set, calling him "the real daddy of Medicare."

But Medicare, much like President Obama's healthcare reform legislation, did not become law without a political fight. In fact, the American Medical Assn. mobilized a massive campaign against the idea, working tirelessly to stop the reform in Congress.

And to serve as the public face of its campaign against a government-sponsored health plan, the AMA chose none other than Ronald Reagan, the star of "General Electric Theater" and former president of the Screen Actors Guild whose views on politics matched its own.

Warning that enacting Medicare would lead to socialism in America, Reagan said that if Americans did not stop Medicare reform, "one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in America when men were free."

In an 11-minute recording for the AMA, Reagan invoked the name of Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party presidential candidate, saying:

"Now back in 1927 an American socialist, Norman Thomas, six times candidate for president on the Socialist Party ticket, said the American people would never vote for socialism. But he said under the name of liberalism the American people would adopt every fragment of the socialist program. . . . One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It's very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project. . . .

"Now, the American people, if you put it to them about socialized medicine and gave them a chance to choose, would unhesitatingly vote against it. We have an example of this. Under the Truman administration, it was proposed that we have a compulsory health insurance program for all people in the United States, and, of course, the American people unhesitatingly rejected this."

Reagan's prescription? "Write to our congressmen and senators," he said. "The key issue is this: We do not want socialized medicine . . . demand the continuation of our traditional free-enterprise system."

Sound familiar?

Now, of course, Medicare is a vastly popular program for seniors and the disabled, sacrosanct even among Republicans. For example, President George W. Bush twisted arms in a Republican Congress to enact a vast expansion of the program to pay for prescription drugs.

Key voice in the debate was lost

In February 2009, in the early days of a new White House, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination as President Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services over a failure to pay $128,203 in taxes. Many predicted that the loss of Daschle's legislative skills and goodwill on Capitol Hill would cripple the new president's signature campaign promise: to reform healthcare.

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad called the Daschle news a "tremendous loss" to the White House. Connecticut Democrat Christopher J. Dodd said it was a "major blow" to efforts to overhaul the healthcare system.

At the very least, observers worried that the withdrawal would slow the process, giving Congress more power to shape the package while the White House scrambled for a Plan B. Robert Laszewski, a healthcare consultant who follows health policy, told the Wall Street Journal that Daschle would be hard to replace. "This will set the healthcare debate back months, not weeks," he predicted.

Were they right? Clearly the vacuum of time from Daschle's withdrawal in February to Kathleen Sebelius' confirmation in April did shift power from the White House to Congress and may have slowed the process in the Senate.

Even more damaging than the loss of timing was the loss of Daschle's skill as a manager of public opinion. With Daschle explaining the bill, would conservatives have mounted a "tea party" rebellion against "death panels"? Would South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson have shouted "You lie!" to Obama on the House floor?

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers and longtime observer of the Washington scene, thinks not.

"If Daschle had gotten the job, there would have been better and more sustained explanations of the bill as it evolved," he said.

Faulting the White House for falling down on selling the package, Baker thinks -- with no disrespect to Sebelius -- that Daschle's tactical sensibilities "would have made a difference."

Neuman writes for The Times. Top of the Ticket, The Times' blog on national politics ( www.latimes.com/ ticket), is a blend of commentary, analysis and news. These are selections from the last week.

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