I apologize if this is a bit long – but I felt it was important.
When I read and hear and watch the progressive reaction to Obama – calling him a sellout, calling health care reform a scam, calling it a bailout of the insurance industry, claiming Obama has been allying himself with Rush Limbaugh, claiming Obama has betrayed them, asking when it is time to march Obama to the guillotine – I’m reminded of how abolitionists reacted to Abraham Lincoln.
Despite his almost universally praised legacy today, in his time, Lincoln was a polarizing figure – scorned by Confederates and abolitionists, Copperheads and radical Republicans. Yet in time, he came to be seen as our greatest president. One has to wonder why all these involved and motivated individuals who eviscerated his actions as he did them came to see him as a visionary leader when these actions were seen in perspective.
The reason is that Lincoln was ruthlessly pragmatic. He had principles, but was willing to forgo if he didn’t think he could achieve what he wanted. Thus, Confederates seeing what he felt believed he was an abolitionist bent on the destruction of the South and seceded from the Union. The abolitionists derided him as weak-willed and unwilling to stand on principle. The progressives of today might learn something from looking at their precursors, the abolitionists of Lincoln’s time.
Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist, labeled Lincoln “the Slave Hound of Illinois” for his reluctant support of the reviled Fugitive Slave Act, even claiming as Lincoln ran for president that, that he was worse than James Mason, the author of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lincoln won election promising not to end slavery, but that “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” He even refused to expand on his limited remarks to explain his thinking further – afraid that any further revelations might cost him votes that his carefully worded statement preserved.
After his election, Frederick Douglass declared: “Abraham Lincoln is no more fit for the place he holds than was [pro-slavery and worst president ever] James Buchanan…” The aforementioned Wendell Phillips continued to attack Lincoln after his election: “I believe Mr. Lincoln is conducting this war, at present, with the purpose of saving slavery…[I]f Mr. Lincoln had been a traitor, he could not have worked better to strengthen one side, and hazard the success of the other…The President…has no mind whatever.“
When one of Lincoln’s generals issued an order ending all slavery in the state he was ruling under martial law, Lincoln rescinded the order and fired the general, saying: “I think there is a great danger, confiscation of property, and the liberating of slaves of traitorous owners, will alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us.”
Other abolitionists complained that Lincoln’s “face was turned toward Zion, but he seemed to move with leaden feet.” They declared him, “stumbling, faithless, uncertain.”
Even when Lincoln finally decided to make a dramatic move condemning slavery – his famous Emancipation Proclamation – it did not end slavery in America. Only in those states still in rebellion, because, as Lincoln reasoned: “I hope to have God on my side. But I must have Kentucky.” Even after this Emancipation, the radical abolitionists in his own party sought to impeach him for being too soft on slavery and the rebellious states. All through this, Lincoln was assailed by the abolitionists as weak, as timid, as cowardly, as unmanly. He refused to let his idealism determine his policy – but rather let it guide it when possible.
Lincoln’s legacy is rightly lionized – he proved to be a brilliant leader, pushing and prodding America in the direction he believed in over time, persevering as his supporters gave up hope, and always looking for the opportunity to push the country in the direction he believed it should be going, rather than forcing it into the place where he thought it should be. This is the difference between a leader and a pundit. After Lincoln died, one of his most prominent critics, Frederick Douglass, scolded himself and those other abolitionists:
His accusers, in whose opinion he was always too fast or too slow, too weak or too strong, too conciliatory or too aggressive, would soon become his admirers; it was soon to be seen that he had conducted the affairs of the nation with singular wisdom, and with absolute fidelity to the great trust confided in him. [my emphasis]
It is normal for those watching the day-to-day activities of a leader to be disillusioned, angry, and bitter, as idealistic hopes are broken on pragmatic realities. While our politicians campaign in poetry, as Mario Cuomo said, they must govern in prose. What frustrates me though is the type of short-term thinking and reacting that leads to good policies being destroyed for improvements being derailed because of their imperfections.
The health care bill before Congress is far from ideal – and it has been weakened every step. But it is progress! It is, in the words of progressive Senator Sherrod Brown, “Not a great bill, but a good bill.” It will help millions of Americans. (As well as, unfortunately, the profits of health insurance companies.) Most importantly, it provides a foundation for future reform. Remember that “Social Security was designed to exclude African Americans. Medicare didn’t cover prescription drugs. Medicaid was mainly for pregnant women and their young children. Canada’s system was limited to a single province. There was no University of California at Los Angeles.” Once the funding and system is there, it can be improved upon. This bill takes a huge step to making health care insurance universal and expands access to health insurance more dramatically than any program since Medicare in the 1960s.
As a liberal, I’d rather start reforming health care now and help the insurance companies as part of the bargain, then than fuck over the uninsured to spite the insurance companies. To quote Ezra Klein:
To put this a bit more sharply, if I could construct a system in which insurers…never discriminated against another sick applicant, began exerting real pressure for providers to bring down costs, vastly simplified their billing systems, made it easier to compare plans and access consumer ratings, and generally worked more like companies in a competitive market rather than companies in a non-functional market, I would take that deal. And if you told me that the price of that deal was that insurers would move from being the 86th most profitable industry to being the 53rd most profitable industry, I would still take that deal.
And if getting this done means caving in to a weasel like Joe Lieberman, who is willing to block this bill and let 150,000 die as a result of their lack of access to health insurance, then so be it. I’d rather protect the thousands than, in a display of pique, destroy any chance of reform. (This posturing reminds me of nothing so much as a domestic application of neoconservative foreign policy: It’s better to be strong and get nothing done than appear weak and negotiate.)
So, to my brethren on the left posting at reddit, and on progressive blogs around the nation, remember this: Be angry the bill has been undermined. Be angry that various interest groups have gotten their way at the expense of the majority. But keep perspective, and see which direction the bill moves us. And ask: Does it create a framework of exchanges and subsidies that can improve our health care system? Does it bring us closer to universal health insurance? Will it be easier to add a public option to this structure in the years ahead if, as seems likely, the health insurance industries continue their abusive behaviors, than to start anew?
The answers are clearly, Yes, Yes, and Yes.
As a progressive, as a liberal, you don’t have to be happy about supporting this bill. But you should support it.
Postscript: And to preemptively answer 3 other issues:
I have yet to see an argument which truly makes the case for why this bill should be scrapped from a progressive view that doesn’t focus on insurance company profits – which suck – but there are worse things, or an exaggerated view of what the White House could have done, or an exaggerated view of how important the public option was to the reforms.
[Image not subject to copyright.]