Ronald Reagan wasn't prescient in health care warning

One of my regular correspondents sent me a video the other day that featured Ronald Reagan predicting that the United States was on the dire path to socialized medicine.

The video clip actually comes from the Michael Moore movie "Sicko," but the underlying Reagan recording is real, excerpted from a longer statement. Conservative groups have been using his ominous words as proof of Reagan's prescience about where liberals eventually would take us with Obamacare.

The level of disinformation in the anti-Obamacare effort is staggering. Obama in fact disappointed a lot of liberal Democrats by abandoning the idea of a single-payer health care system and instead supporting a market-based approach that originated in part with the conservative Heritage Foundation and got its successful trial run under Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

"An idea that not so long ago might have looked bipartisan now is incredibly polarizing," says Muhlenberg College political science professor Christopher Borick. "There are so many layers of personal politics and anger toward the president in many circles. It all comes into this caldron in Washington and gets spun."

Reagan was serving back in the early '60s as spokesman for groups that opposed the introduction of that crazy Commie plot … Medicare. Reagan warned that, among other dangers, the government wouldn't allow doctors to practice where they wanted if it determined there already was enough medical care there. He argued that Medicare threatened the fabric of American life by moving us toward socialism.

"One of these days," Reagan preached, "we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free."

When broadcast huckster Glenn Beck reproduced the full text of Reagan's recording on his website, his headline was: "Don't say we weren't warned."

If this is supposed to convince me that Obamacare is a bad idea, it's not so effective. Rather, it tells me that conservatives are using the same organized hysteria tactics today that they used 50 years ago to oppose an idea that seems not at all radical today: Ensure that elderly people are guaranteed at least a basic level of health care.

If you could abandon Medicare today to restore the purity of our free-enterprise system, would you? With a few nutty exceptions, even the House Republicans wouldn't advocate that. So how credible are the same arguments against Obamacare?

Mind you, I don't quarrel with anyone who sees potential problems with the new law. I have no faith in the ability of our Congress — whether it's either party or the two working together — to pass something this complicated without serious omissions and missteps. I expect all kinds of complications, foreseen and unforeseen, to arise as it's rolled out.

My complaint about the congressional Republicans from the beginning has been that instead of engaging themselves to make health care reform more effective from their and everyone's standpoint, they lobbed grenades from a distance. And they're still doing it, devoting an inordinate amount of time and energy to fruitless attempts to kill the law — which they know full well are meaningless except as political publicity stunts — when there are so many other serious issues that need their attention, including fine-tuning Obamacare. Now some of them even are threatening to shut the government down.

When I wrote about this a few years ago after the law passed, I talked to Borick, who acknowledged the political divisions and pointed out that voters would get their shot in 2012 at expressing their opinion of the president's most high-profile initiative.

"It's the Democrats' bill, and the Republicans hated it," Borick said at the time. "Now let the voters decide. In a democratic system, something inside of me says, 'Good, we get a choice.'"

As expected, Obamacare was very much part of that 2012 campaign. Obama defended it. Romney proposed to dismantle it. Voters made their choice.

I realize that elections are about more than one issue, but under the circumstances, which included Democratic gains in the House and Senate and polling that shows most people support at least some components of the law, it's difficult to claim any kind of mandate for defunding Obamacare. I believe what people do want, however, is a plan that is tempered by the balance of two-party input. The present climate in Washington is robbing us of that, and it may well have robbed us of a better health care reform bill.

"Americans love divided government if divided government is functioning," Borick told me this week. "Take the best of both parties' ideas and merge them into compromise. I don't think they like divided government in the form of retreating to polarized positions with no compromise."

Of course, it's hard to compromise with people you think want to destroy the fabric of American life. But the next time you hear that kind of rhetoric, remember that we heard the same peals of doomsday about a health care program that most Americans would consider indispensable today.

Reagan wasn't prescient. He was wrong.

bill.white@mcall.com 610-820-6105

Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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