Among developed nations, the United States has had a unique standing. It was the only one not to offer its citizens comprehensive health care. For decades the redneck right blocked the march toward civility.
Now the march has reached the destination. Health-care reform passed its major legislative hurdle Sunday and will likely be given the final go-ahead later this week. The triumph comes courtesy of the sustained effort of Barack Obama, whose presidency is now revitalized.
It’s a remarkable win. Following the Democrats’ loss of former Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, it looked like health-care reform was dead. It looked as if Republican regressives were gaining momentum. The Sarah Palin movement is essentially a reactionary one, one that preys on people’s base instincts and base prejudices, a rebellion of sorts against enlightenment and erudition. With her down-home charm, her ability to connect, Palin turned her knowledge deficit into a political attribute. She’s made it cool to be uniformed.
Through much of the last century, it has been the hard-line Republicans who led the drive against other social security advances, who were the holdouts on civil rights, who pushed for handguns in every household. The health-care reform, the biggest social welfare advancement in decades, won’t slow them much. It will give Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and Palin all the more reason to try to advance their backward agenda.
But for the moment the progressives lead the way. “Today is the day that is going to rank with the day we passed the civil rights bill in 1964,” said veteran Democrat lawmaker John Dingell. Remarkably, Dingell had introduced a universal health-care bill in Congress every year since the 1950s.
As a reflection of the polarization in American politics, not a single Republican voted in favour of the legislation. “This debate is not about the uninsured,” said Devin Nunes, a California House member. “It is about socialized medicine. Today, Democrats in this House will finally lay the cornerstone of their socialist utopia on the backs of the American people.”
The legislation, Nunes forgot to mention, does not include a new government-run insurance plan like there is in Canada.
It won’t be like the Canadian system, but it will nonetheless enhance the American reputation on this side of the border. Given that one of the deterrents for Canadians moving south was their weak health-insurance system, it may even lead to an increased brain drain. But in the circumstances, that’s tolerable. The important thing is progress. A president who can lead the United States to a higher place is on the move.
Lawrence Martin is a journalist and author of 10 books who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.