On Ronald Reagan, Doctors, and the Republican Party

Last night in the Vice Presidential debate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin closed her remarks with a quotation of Ronald Reagan:

It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream; we have to fight for it and protect it, and then hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.

Paul Krugman gives background to this idea of Reagan’s — it was from a record he recorded to defeat the passage of Medicare in 1961. The passage of Medicare, Reagan claims, will open the door to socialism. The creation of Medicare, in Reagan’s argument, is an encroachment on individual liberties and will destroy the American way of life.

You can download Reagan’s 11-minute diatribe here. Reagan speaks at length about how doctors, and only doctors, can make medical decisions, and Medicare means that someone else will be making the decision. What would Reagan think of insurance companies and HMOs substituting their financial judgments for medical decisions today? Reagan fears socialized as an encroachment on individual liberties, and yet Reagan’s lobbying against Medicare may well have led to today’s encroachment on individual health and welfare by the for-profit insurance companies.

It’s eerie to listen to Reagan rail against the Detroit automakers for their wish — in 1961! — for a national health service. (Note: the Detroit automakers would love a national health program today, and you know why? Because they’re passing along their healthcare costs to consumers with every car they sell, and it’s putting them at a competative disadvantage with automobiles from Japan and Europe, places where the car companies don’t have to factor in employee healthcare costs.)

I cannot listen to this and not be revulsed. How did this man become President? How could Reagan honestly believe that ensuring the general welfare by making access to healthcare easier would lead to totalitarianism and an end to American liberties? How can the man speaking these words be held up as a sainted figure in the Republican Party?

People look at me like I’m daft when I call myself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.” The reason? There’s no such thing in the Republican Party anymore. Progressives haven’t abandoned the Republican Party — the Republican Party abandoned them. I’m reminded of this passage from Roosevelt’s Presidential platform in 1912: “Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people. From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.” Legend has it that Roosevelt wrote the Bull Moose Party’s platform himself. Assuming that he did, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, I cannot imagine Roosevelt being welcome in the Republican Party today. Roosevelt would have recognized the Reagan of that attack on Medicare not as a Republican but as one of the “corrupt interests which use [government] impartially to serve their selfish purposes.”

Maybe it’s time for the Bull Mooses to return. At least they had something to offer. What have the Republicans had to offer the past twenty-five years beyond debt, war, and intolerance? What part of “promote the general welfare,” right from the Preamble of the Constitution so many Republicans say they respect, do they not understand?

Maybe, after last night’s debate, the time has come for the Republican Party to die away.

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