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Hey, Hey, LBJ! What Kind of Bill Would You Kill Today?

At a Christmas party a couple weeks ago, back when it looked as if the Senate bill’s compromise would include the Medicare buy-in, a friend of mine told me that he predicted Harry Reid was gong to go down in history as the next LBJ. When I reminded him that the deal was not yet set in stone (the degree of Joe Lieberman’s treachery was yet to be fully revealed), he revised his prediction to say that he would either be the next LBJ or the next Jimmy Carter, depending on what happens in the next couple weeks.

lyndon johnson

Lyndon Johnson

With the cloture hurdle now cleared and the likely Christmas Eve passage of the pathetic Senate bill without the public option or Medicare buy-in, the “kill the bill” campaign seems to have failed in the Senate. Now the only question that remains is whether this campaign will win over enough progressives in the House to kill it once it gets out of conference. Progressives everywhere are now in the process of recruiting us to sign petitions for those members of Congress urging them to do just that. If you want to see universal healthcare in your lifetime, or see Harry Reid playing his originally predicted role in this saga, I have some advice for you: don’t sign.

Having definitively lost the fight to pass something decent this year, the Democratic Party’s chances of not getting slaughtered in next year’s midterm elections may have become slim to none, but slim is about to leave town if they don’t give the voters SOMETHING to show that “change we can believe in” was not just another empty promise from the party they simply cannot trust.

If what’s left of the bill truly is worse than doing nothing, we need to ask ourselves why the right is still fighting it every step of the way. There are several reasons why, all of which explain why killing the bill would be the worst possible thing to do.

Right-wingers understand just how many seats they can pick up next year if they can deny the President any victory on his top domestic priority. Not all progressives do.

Right-wingers understand the lessons to be learned from Ted Kennedy’s “killing” of Nixon’s offer for something far more progressive than what we even started with this year, a mistake that he always acknowledged and hoped we would not repeat as we carried on his fight. Not all progressives do.

And most importantly, right-wingers understand the potential for even a piece of junk like this to serve as a building block that will eventually lead us in the direction of true reform. Not all progressives do.

Once again, we need to look at LBJ’s example for guidance. I’m quite certain that when my friend made that reference, the man he was referring to was not the President who signed Medicare into law, but the Senate Majority Leader whose reputation as a master politician lay in his ability to steer to passage a civil rights bill that was, at the time, as universally ridiculed by progressives as the current health reform bill.

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Today, we remember the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as the first step moving us in the direction of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it was. But at the time, just about every progressive reacted to the suggestion that they accept “half a loaf” with the response that the amended bill they were being asked to accept was not even a slice. As Hubert Humphrey characterized it, it was “a crumb”.

Say what you want about that crumb. The bottom line, as we now know, is that from that crumb blossomed many great things. Reading about the battle to pass this law in Robert Caro’s masterful LBJ biography, Master of the Senate , I can’t help but see the parallels between that bill’s progressive critics and the “kill the bill” crowd today. They might not have understood what this crumb really represented, but hindsight gave Caro the ability to give a far more accurate assessment of what was represented by the first civil rights law of ANY kind to pass in 82 years: “It was more than half a loaf, a lot more. It was hope.”

Not only will passage of this new crumb (the best one we’re going to get so long as Senate Rule 22 remains on the books) contain within it the hope to show the American public that the Democrats can govern, it can be the seed from which we grow the foundations of real reform. Getting people covered is the first, most important thing. Until we do that, every other goal regarding the quality and/or affordability of that coverage will be out of reach. But once that seed is planted, we can proceed to finish the job.

The states can take the lead. Five years ago, we came within a whisper of passing an employer mandate here in California. This law could do the trick in putting us over the top the next time. Once federal law requires people to have overpriced insurance, it won’t be long before they come to the conclusion that it’s a good idea to demand that their employers be the ones to pay for it. And once Corporate America starts having to pay for its employees’ insurance, it won’t be long before the list of demands they use their massive resources to extort from the government will include the demand for the least expensive way to pay for it. That way, of course, is single payer.

Ted Kennedy was motivated to “kill” Nixon’s proposal for an employer mandate because he was confident that the Democrats could kill it, and then pass single-payer instead once they defeated Nixon in 1972. Worked great, didn’t it? The result was the shutting down of any possibility of passing any health reform for another 37 years, a mistake some progressives seem ready to repeat for another 37 years today.


LBJ, on the other hand, played the leading role in passing a civil rights bill that every progressive knew was as badly flawed as the health care bill. The result was the creation of the momentum that led to the real reform that he would personally get the privilege of signing into law with Dr. King by his side seven years later.

Hey, hey, LBJ! This is not the kind of bill you would kill today.

Mark Bowen

DSCC Delegate, 55th AD