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A history lesson for liberals

Health care reform and the lessons of 1935

One can only imagine how the denizens of the left in 2009 would have treated Franklin D. Roosevelt back in 1935. Howard Dean and the bloggers and dailykos and and the rest of the liberal chattering class would have assailed FDR (and his congressional Democratic allies) as sell-outs, as betrayers of the New Deal themes of hope and change.

Confronted with all the compromises that were embedded in the historic Social Security Act of 1935, undoubtedly these liberal activists would have yelled "Kill the bill!" and insisted amidst their fulminations that the president and the Democrats scrap the whole effort and return to square one.

In other words, they would have been just as naive then as they appear to be now.

Led by Howard Dean (who is still cable TV catnip - inexplicably so, given the fact that his political support peaked in December 2003), the most vocal liberals are railing this week about the compromises embedded in the Senate health care reform bill. Thanks to the late deal-making, the bill has no public insurance option of any kind - no opt-in or opt-out language, no "trigger," no Medicare buy-in for 55-year-olds. Instead,  the left-leaning vocalists complain, uninsured people would be compelled to buy health insurance - albeit with federal help - from private carriers; in the words of one liberal blogger-complainant, that would be "neo-feudalism," similar to what peasants endured during the Middle Ages. (Uh, hello: The Dutch and Swiss universal health care systems, which are routinely lauded by American liberals, both require their citizens to buy insurance from private carriers.)

Anyway, the miffed liberals' supposed solution at the moment is to simply kill the whole reform bill and start all over again. I would suggest a different solution.These folks need to be hosed down and given a history lesson. They need to become acquainted with the realities of the incremental half-a-loaf legislative process, as practiced over the past 220 years. And the 1935 Social Security law should be on the syllabus for session one.

That law, as originally envisioned by FDR and the Democratic Congress, would have created a massive federal safety net for all sorts of Americans imperiled by the Great Depression. Farm laborers were supposed to get benefits. Domestic workers were supposed to get benefits. The children of deceased workers were supposed to get benefits. Disabled workers who has been injured on the job were supposed to get benefits. All these benefits were supposed to be generous - and upwardly adjustable, in accordance with the rising cost of living.

Well, guess what: All those envisoned provisions were jettisoned in 1935. The act basically covered the elderly, and hardly anyone else. The benefits were miserly. There was no annual cost-of-living-adjustment. Disabled workers got zip. Children of dead workers got zip. Domestic workers got zip. Farm laborers (many of whom were minorities) got zip, and that was partly because FDR had to dump that provision at the insistence of the racist southern Democratic congressmen, in exchange for their votes on the watered-down final package.

That was the best FDR could get at the time - and this was after he'd won 59 percent of the vote, a landslide win that gave him a clear reform mandate. Nevertheless, Howard Dean and his brethren probably would have scoffed at the final bill, denounced it as a mockery of New Deal ideals, and demanded that FDR scrap it and start over - somehow overlooking the fact that the bill itself, even in its diluted form, had codified an historic principle: the necessity and desirability of a federal safety net for the most vulnerable American citizens.

And in incremental fashion, over the years, lawmakers built on that principle. The provisions of the Social Security Act were repeatedly expanded. Farm laborers, domestic workers, government workers, children of deceased workers, disabled workers - all of them were added to the safety net, with benefits pegged to the cost of living.

Today, liberal activists are scoffing at a diluted health reform bill that would nevertheless codify, for the first time, an historic principle: universal health care, as mandated by the federal government. For the first time, private insurers would be required to cover all Americans - especially the sick, especially the people with pre-existing health conditions. This is a game-changer, a blueprint for social justice, and, notwithstanding its manifest imperfections and deletions, it would save lives.

What FDR brokered in 1935 was a foundation for reform; subsequent reformers built on it, and a broad swath of Americans are still reaping the benefits. Today's ticked-off liberals would do well to gain some historical perspective, and thus the wisdom to view the inevitably imperfect as a solid foundation on which to build. That's what reality-based governing is all about.