THEY’VE BEEN WRONG FOR A VERY LONG TIME…. The benefits of hindsight can make opponents of popular measures look quite silly years later. Republican arguments against Medicare seem ridiculous now, but were intense at the time. Republican arguments against Clinton’s economic policies are almost laughable now, but were widely believed at the time.
And Republican arguments against Social Security, as Nancy Altman explained today, seem awfully familiar 74 years later.
Though no one was talking about “death panels” back then, opponents claimed that Social Security would result in massive government control. A Republican congressman from New York, for example, charged: “The lash of the dictator will be felt, and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test.”
Another New York congressman put it this way: “The bill opens the door and invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful as to threaten the integrity of our institutions and to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants.” A Republican senator from Delaware claimed that Social Security would “end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European.”
Today, opponents of a public health insurance option claim that it would drive private health insurance out of business and put a bureaucrat between doctors and patients. Back then, opponents of Social Security warned that it would “establish a bureaucracy in the field of insurance in competition with private business” that would “destroy” private pensions.
Then as now, opponents played the socialism card.
It wasn’t just Social Security. When FDR tackled health care reform, the right condemned “the socialization of medicine,” and the AMA said Roosevelt’s plans were “un-American.”
The difference, of course, is that most Americans rejected the nonsense, and welcomed FDR’s reforms. Republicans of that era, similar to the Republicans of the current era, had failed so spectacularly at governing, their ideas had been thoroughly discredited. The conservative activists of the time struggled to convince the public to reject Roosevelt’s agenda.
Altman recommends that Obama follow FDR’s example. The problem is, Obama already has. Roosevelt anticipated Republican attacks, and told Americans the truth is speeches and fire-side chats. Obama has done the same thing. The difference is, FDR didn’t have to overcome a Republican Propaganda Machine.
And as long as we’re talking about Roosevelt and Social Security, Paul Begala had an op-ed yesterday, some of which I disagreed with, but which raised an interesting point that’s often overlooked.
No self-respecting liberal today would support Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security Act. It excluded agricultural workers — a huge part of the economy in 1935, and one in which Latinos have traditionally worked. It excluded domestic workers, which included countless African Americans and immigrants. It did not cover the self-employed, or state and local government employees, or railroad employees, or federal employees or employees of nonprofits. It didn’t even cover the clergy. FDR’s Social Security Act did not have benefits for dependents or survivors. It did not have a cost-of-living increase. If you became disabled and couldn’t work, you got nothing from Social Security.
If that version of Social Security were introduced today, progressives like me would call it cramped, parsimonious, mean-spirited and even racist. Perhaps it was all those things. But it was also a start. And for 74 years we have built on that start. We added more people to the winner’s circle: farmworkers and domestic workers and government workers. We extended benefits to the children of working men and women who died. We granted benefits to the disabled. We mandated annual cost-of-living adjustments. And today Social Security is the bedrock of our progressive vision of the common good.
Roosevelt, the towering political figure of the 20th century, with an electoral mandate, a Democratic Congress, and the stench of a failed Republican president fresh on the nation’s mind, had to take what he could get on Social Security, which was far less than what he wanted.
In the context of today’s health care debate, it’s a reminder of a point many have raised of late — there’s quite a chasm between the status quo and the kind of reform the nation deserves. If a bill reaches the president’s desk later this year, and it can be a bitter disappointment and a huge step in the right direction at the same time.