His­tory is watch­ing

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

WASH­ING­TON – Over the last cen­tury, there has been a char­ac­ter­is­tic Amer­i­can cy­cle of re­sponse to far­reach­ing so­cial re­forms.

When the break­throughs are first pro­posed, con­ser­va­tives fight them with a de­vout pas­sion, warn­ing that the mea­sures on of­fer would move the na­tion to­ward so­cial­ism and perdi­tion. Then, over time, the dis­as­trous con­se­quences never ma­te­ri­al­ize, the re­forms prove their worth, and Amer­i­cans come to see the once-new ben­e­fits as rights.

This was cer­tainly the case with two of our na­tion’s great­est so­cial pro­grams.

In the de­bate over Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s plan for So­cial Se­cu­rity, Rep. James Wadsworth said the sys­tem would make govern­ment “so vast, so pow­er­ful as to threaten the in­tegrity of our in­sti­tu­tions and to pull the pil­lars of the tem­ple down upon the heads of our de­scen­dants.”

Rep. John Taber, like Wadsworth a con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can from New York, was equally apoc­a­lyp­tic: “Never in the his­tory of the world has any mea­sure been brought here so in­sid­i­ously de­signed as to pre­vent busi­ness re­cov­ery, to enslave work­ers and to pre­vent any pos­si­bil­ity of the em­ploy­ers pro­vid­ing work for the peo­ple.”

As it hap­pened, the pil­lars of the tem­ple re­mained firmly in place, and so to­day does So­cial Se­cu­rity.

The story is the same with Medi­care. An elo­quent con­ser­va­tive ac­tor named Ron­ald Rea­gan warned in 1961, “One of these days, you and I 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.”

The Gip­per also of­fered this: “It’s very easy to dis­guise a med­i­cal pro­gram as a hu­man­i­tar­ian project. Most peo­ple are a lit­tle re­luc­tant to op­pose any­thing that sug­gests med­i­cal care for peo­ple who pos­si­bly can’t af­ford it.”

As well they should be, and this is why the com­ing weeks will be among the most im­por­tant in the his­tory of Amer­i­can so­cial pol­icy. A hand­ful of Repub­li­can sen­a­tors will de­cide whether the Af­ford­able Care Act (ACA) will re­main part of the fabric of our na­tion’s life, the lat­est in a long se­ries of steps to­ward a more hu­mane so­ci­ety.

The Oba­macare re­peal bill un­veiled last week by Se­nate Repub­li­can leader Mitch McCon­nell af­ter the fail­ure of his first try is, if any­thing, worse than the orig­i­nal.

En­dur­ing so­cial re­forms have lasted not only be­cause they demon­strated their value, but also be­cause Congress im­proved them over the years. So­cialSe­cu­rity,forex­am­ple,is­bet­ter­be­cause­ofchanges made in the early 1950s and again in the 1970s.

To op­pose this wretched Se­nate re­peal bill thus does not mean declar­ing that the ACA is per­fect. It means ac­cept­ing that Oba­macare moved the na­tion in the right di­rec­tion – and, by the way, used some con­ser­va­tive ideas to do it.

We can be grate­ful that ear­lier gen­er­a­tions ig­nored those who reg­u­larly equated so­cial ad­vances with op­pres­sion. As Rea­gan might say, our chil­dren and our chil­dren’s chil­dren will ask whether we shared the courage of our fore­bears.

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