Paying the political price

I have been reading Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, in my free time. It’s a lively read:  rather strange insofar as it centres on the peculiarly privileged Kennedy family, but fascinating insofar as the Kennedy family has been at the centre of many epochal events (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, the assassination of both JFK and Bobby Kennedy).

In the next few days, I plan to share a couple of excerpts that stand out for me. First up:  the passage of civil rights legislation, originally championed by JFK — and the political price the Democrats paid for doing the right thing.

The bill was passed into law just seven months after JFK’s assassination.

On June 19, 1964, a year to the day after my brother sent his civil rights bill to Congress, it passed into law on a vote of seventy-three to twenty-seven.

We knew that the Democratic Party would pay a price for this achievement. [President] Lyndon Johnson himself put it most succinctly when he remarked, “We may win this legislation, but we’re going to lose the South for a generation.” And he was right; this marked the onset of the transformation of the region from Democratic to Republican.

Other Democratic leaders foresaw this as well, yet they acted to pass the bill nonetheless. I’m convinced that they acted, as had my brother in his speech, beyond political calculus:  this was simply the right thing to do.

(pp. 217-18)

Today, the Democrats — who won the election in 2008, decisively — are struggling to pass legislation which would reform the health care system in the USA. They face opposition from both Republicans and certain conservative Democrats.

Sometimes the opposition is grounded in legitimate concerns (Is the cost sustainable?) and sometimes it is grounded in an utterly cynical political calculation (If Republicans defeat health care reform, we will have dealt President Obama a crippling blow.)

I quote Kennedy’s memoir to make this simple point:  politicians have been known to put the public interest ahead of personal or partisan political interests.

What would happen if Republicans voted in favour of health care? They would assist President Obama in realizing a historic achievement.

They would also perform a great public service. Literally tens of millions of Americans would benefit hugely as a direct result. The question is, are Republicans (and the aforementioned conservative Democrats) willing to pay a political price, as the Democrats did in passing a civil rights act in 1964?

It is abundantly clear that the answer is No. Grasping power matters more than the public good, to this generation of Republicans.

Of course, there shouldn’t be any negative political consequences for passing legislation that will benefit tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately public debate has been poisoned by persistent, pernicious distortions and outright lies about what health care reform would entail.

That, of course, is a deliberate strategy on the part of those for whom the public good is an incidental concern.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. aaron
    Nov 23, 2009 @ 21:56:00

    Sad but true. Far too many politicians are more willing to put their interests (and the interests of their donors) ahead of the interests of the people. FWIW, cutting against that perspective is what Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) said the other day:

    “If you get to the final point and you are a critical vote for health care reform and every piece of evidence tells you if you support the bill you will lose your job, would you cast the vote and lose your job?” CNN’s John King asked Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado on Sunday’s State of the Union.

    “Yes,” Bennet bluntly and simply replied.


  2. JewishAtheist
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 10:14:30

    Certainly some legislators are opposing the bill out of cynical Machiavellianism. However, don’t underestimate how many of them are really ideologically opposed to it. People can convince themselves of anything.

    It is my hypothesis that the reason the Republican party is in such bad shape is exactly because the Republican elite (such as it is) started actually believing the rhetoric that previous generations of Republican elites had only used dishonestly. Reagan talked a good game against taxes (what voter wants more taxes?!) but he even he raised them when he felt he had to. HW Bush famously swore not to raise taxes and then raised them when he felt he had to. Nowadays, I can’t think of a prominent Republican who would do that. Not because they would choose popularity over doing what they think is the right thing, but that they’re not even capable of seeing the right thing if it goes against the rhetoric.

    Actually, I take that back. George W. Bush did (approximately) the right thing with TARP even though it went against all Republican rhetoric. I’d like to know who convinced him.


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