The New Health Dialogue

A Blog from New America's Health Policy Program

HEALTH REFORM: Give 'Em Hell, Barry?

Published:  January 27, 2010
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It's time for President Obama to channel his inner Truman. At least that's the message from Brown political scientist James Morone, an expert on presidents and health reform.

 "A look at the history of the 75-year struggle for change shows that caving in to opponents now will cost the party -- and Americans," Morone,  who co-authored "The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office", writes in an LA Times op-ed.

Democrats need more than a strategy, Morone argues. They need a "history lesson and a story line."

Harry Truman took a drubbing when he tried to do health reform in the late 1940s. Only 30 percent of voters backed him going into the 1948 campaign -- but he won. And when Lyndon Johnson picked up Truman's cause, we got Medicare and Medicaid. 

When Bill and Hillary Clinton's health reform initiatve collapse and Democrats "abandoned the cause," Morone writes, "the opponents controlled the historical spin."

Today, everyone "knows" that the Republicans saved America from Clinton's maladroit mess. Three months later, in the midterm elections of 1994, Republicans won their widest political victory in the 20th century, and the prospect of healthcare reform vanished along with Democratic majorities.

And here we are again. Democrats contemplate scaling back or walking away. Instead, they ought to channel their inner Trumans. Find a voice. Explain why they believe in reform. After all, why would people vote for a party without a cause?..

Morone notes that Barack Obama has "the gift" of articulating a vision, yet for the past year the news has been about "wheeling and dealing, the arm-twisting and compromising." More recently it's been about Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman. "Parties prosper when they connect their passions and their principles to their policies. Remembering that could save healthcare reform -- and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate."

Failure is not a great recipe for political success. But imagine how the headlines could change from the ugly minute-by-minute drip drip drip of legislative process and political positioning to the stuff of history. They could read, "Democrats Retreat." Or they could say, "Democrats Achieve Historic Victory."  We know which one makes a better story.

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