Profiles in Courage

In the Washington Post before the recent health care reform vote, Dan Balz reported that “former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill ‘the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times,’ Gingrich said: ‘They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years’ with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.”

This statement is so inane on so many levels, we don’t know where to begin. So like a Boggle game, we’ll just throw out as many as we can in three minutes:

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* The reform bills are neither “radical” nor an “experiment.” They at long last bring the United States closer to being in line with the rest of the industrialized nations. And many of the key provisions in the bills — from elimination of pre-existing condition exclusions, to preventing policy terminations of those who are ill, to preventive care, to insuring the otherwise uninsurable — were supported by many Americans throughout the debate.

* LBJ and Congress acted on principle in 1964 in adopting the Civil Rights Act. It was the right thing to do, not the politically pragmatic thing to do. Same here — the fight led by President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was not carried to curry favor with voters. What happens in November as a result of health care is very much up in the air.

* The Democratic Party was hardly “shattered” for 40 years. The party retained a majority in the House of Representatives for another 30 years, until Gingrich’s Contract With America (largely inspired by a 1985 State of the Union speech by President Ronald Reagan) caused a shift in 1994. In fact, the House remained Republican for barely more than a decade after that before returning to the Blue Side. And there was a Democratic President until 1968, one elected again in 1976, once again in 1992, a too-close-to-call election in 2000 that required a judicial determination, and of course, one elected in 2008.

* Gingrich was no doubt in part referring to the switch of southern Democrats to the Republican Party, which led in part to the victory in 1980 by President Ronald Reagan. But that was not a shattering of the Democratic Party, it was realignment based on regional and demographic divides, as more left-leaning rural and small-town residents flooded urban areas in search of employment and more progressive communities.

While we may be beating up on Gingrich, we must remember that at different times, each party has played a crucial role in advancing the cause of social justice in America. It was Abraham Lincoln who stood firm on the Union is 1861. And a century later in 1964, the Republicans were strongly in favor of the Civil Rights Act; it was the Southern Democrats (and the somewhat rare animal at the time, the Southern Republican) who opposed and in the Senate, filibustered against, passage.

The important element in effecting meaningful and essential social change is not partisanship, but courage. Whether it’s a quiet individual like Rosa Parks, spiritual leaders such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr., or political leaders such as Obama, Pelosi and Reid, social justice requires standing up to the status quo.

The status quo did not acquit itself so well in the final days of the debate. Racial epithets were hurled at African-American Congressmen outside the Capitol, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) was spat upon. And during the debate Sunday night, a Texas Congressman said “it’s a baby killer,” referring to the final deal on the legislation, which called for Obama to sign an executive order reinforcing the current ban on federal funds for abortion. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay, was also the target of hateful name-calling. The scene was reminiscent of nothing so much as Mississippi circa 1960. These disgusting tactics, along with the repeated mischaracterization of the bills and their content, detracted from useful political debate.

But in the end, the majority of the elected representatives got it right and stood up for uninsured Americans and those who have suffered both medically and financially due to inadequate and denied coverage. And that is really what counts. Newt Gingrich may truly believe that those who sided with the majority will be irreparably damaged by their noble efforts. Only history will tell, but given the lasting impact of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we are skeptical that his bleak vision will come to pass.