As President Obama prepares to release yet another draft of his proposal for health care reform – one that most certainly will include some additional Republican ideas, I can’t help but think how this whole process is very much similar to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Current public polling suggests that a majority of Americans are opposed to the comprehensive bill despite the fact that they seem to approve of its individual components like banning exclusions for pre-existing conditions, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines, and its positive impact on deficit reduction. Back in the early 1960’s a huge slice of Americans opposed many of the provisions outlined in the Civil Rights Act. For example, according to the Gallup Poll, in June 1963, only 49% of those surveyed approved of desegregation in public places. On the question of whether schools should allow children of all races, the numbers were a bit better with 63% approving, but still an alarming 35% disapproving.
Today’s debate on health care reform is split along party lines. In the 1960’s, the split was geographical, with the north highly in favor, and the south vehemently opposed. Ironically, more Republicans supported the final bill than did the Democrats despite President Johnson being a Democrat himself.
Back then, people were discriminated against because of their skin color. Today, people are discriminated against because of their medical condition.
This past week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that elected officials need to do what’s right for the American people even if that may cost them victory in their elections. In 1964, upon signing the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson declared of the Democratic Party, “We have the lost the South for a generation.”
But just like in 1964, when President Johnson realized that racial inequities were simply no longer tolerable in America, our leaders today, must understand that leaving 30-50 million Americans without proper access to health care is also no longer tolerable. And while the Democrats did lose the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it became the shining moment of Johnson’s presidency (until the Vietnam War got in the way). Who can argue that the Civil Rights Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation in our nation’s history? Certainly, Johnson could have caved at the threat of losing an entire bloc, but instead, he correctly recognized that sometimes policy trumps politics.
So, here we are again, faced with another important piece of legislation that if passed, will finally go a long way toward ending years of discrimination and inequality in our nation’s health care system. Once again, we face a polarized electorate on this important issue. Once again, initial polling suggests that more people are opposed to it. But if Democrats get their act together and pass this thing through reconciliation, it will be right up there with the Civil Rights Act in terms of significance in our history.
Today, there are many older African-Americans who can tell their grandchildren about a time in our country when they were treated as inferior citizens simply because of the color of their skin. Imagine, in 20-30 years time, grandparents being able to tell their grandchildren about a time long ago when people were treated as inferior citizens simply because of a pre-existing condition.