Monday, March 22, 2010

democrats could pay a political price

WaPo | Regardless of the political fallout, historians say health-care reform will take its place in the same category as the enactment of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, and only a rung or two below passage of the major civil rights bills of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the bill's providing coverage for more than 32 million uninsured Americans, people would no longer be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions. The "doughnut hole" for Medicare prescriptions would eventually be eliminated, and young people could stay on their parents' insurance plan through age 26.

"I think this will be seen as a really major reform initiative," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. "How it plays out remains to be seen. But if Social Security and Medicare and civil rights are any preludes to this initiative, then I think it will become a fixed part of the national political/social/economic culture."

former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill "the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times," Gingrich said: "They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

No one doubts that Johnson was right to push for those civil rights measures. And he was well aware of the potential damage they would do to a Democratic Party that was then a coalition including whites and African Americans, liberals from the North and conservative segregationists from the South.

Those battles over civil rights set off a political realignment that played out over decades and led eventually to a Republican domination of the South that continues to this day.

Still, the health-care battle has divided the country in ways that the Medicare debate of the 1960s did not. One reason is that partisanship and political polarization are measurably worse today. Another factor is that trust in government is far lower than in the 1960s. Finally, the political parties are far more homogenous, particularly the Republican Party, whose members decidedly identify themselves as conservative or very conservative.


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