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David Morris: Profiles of Political Courage

May 14, 2012

Health care reform may be repealed if Republicans win in November, but it may not be the only president's signature legislation that's in danger.

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Image from Flickr via The U.S. National Archives

By David Morris
By arrangement with On the Commons

A few weeks ago Congressman Barney Frank, who is retiring from the House this year, gave a memorable interview to New York magazine in which he criticized President Obama for aggressively pushing health care reform. Frank says he warned Obama the Democratic Party would pay “a terrible price.”

Apparently Frank was not alone in counseling Obama to take health care off the front burner. “At various points, Vice President Joe Biden, senior advisor David Axelrod, and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel advised the President to focus entirely on the economy and leave comprehensive health care for another day,” Jonathan Alter, senior editor of Newsweek reports. “‘I begged him not to do this’, Emanuel told me when I was researching my book about Obama’s first year in office.”

After the law was passed, Alter asked Obama why he overruled his team. The President responded, “I remember telling Nancy Pelosi that moving forward on this could end up being so costly for me politically that it would affect my chances [in the 2012 election].” But he and Pelosi agreed that, if they didn’t move at the outset of the his presidency, “it was not going to get done.”

“I asked him what was troubling him. ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,’ he said.”

In 2009 Obama put country above party. Bringing health security to over 30 million Americans, strengthening the social compact, and laying the foundation for a major restructuring of our health system were sufficient rewards for him to accept the political risks.

Almost exactly forty-five years before Obama’s decision, we witnessed another profile in political courage. Former Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, after becoming President on the death of President Kennedy, aggressively and decisively ended the southern filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, ensuring its passage in July of 1964. Then, in 1965 he secured enactment of the Voting Rights Act.

As with the health care law, the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act was tested. Southern states argued that the federal government had no right to force the private sector to treat blacks and whites the same. The Supreme Court ruled it did.

One hundred years after the Civil War, millions effectively gained the right to vote. Lyndon Johnson also put country above party.

Johnson, like Barack Obama, understood the risks involved in extending democracy to those excluded because of the color of their skin. “When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day,” former Johnson Press Secretary Bill Moyers recalls in his book, Moyers on America. “I asked him what was troubling him. ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,’ he said.”

Johnson was right. Republican presidential contender Richard Nixon quickly embraced what came to be known as the Southern Strategy. He appealed to southern whites, who were as angry then as Tea Party members are now, about what they felt was the federal government’s imposition.

On August 3rd, 1980, the Southern strategy became explicit when Ronald Reagan delivered his first post-convention speech at the Neshoba County Fair, outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, after officially becoming the Republican nominee for President. Reagan declared, “I believe in states’ rights.” Given the location, his message was unmistakable. In June of 1964, Philadelphia had been the site of the murders of voting rights activists James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white student from New York City, and Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old white organizer and former social worker, also from New York. The national outrage over their deaths helped Johnson gain passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

The Democratic Party did, indeed, pay a price for giving blacks the right to vote. In 1964, according to The Economist, the former Confederate states had a total of 128 Senators and Representatives, of which 115 were white Democrats. Today, white southern Democrats account for just 24 of the South’s Congressional delegation, which is larger today than it was then. In 1963, Congressional delegations from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina consisted entirely of white Democrats. Today they have none.

Johnson didn’t underestimate the sensitivity of white people to share the ballot box with minorities. Almost half a century later, that sensitivity remains.

Without President Johnson’s courageous actions, Barack Obama would never have had a chance to become president. But like Johnson, Obama’s actions have cost his Party dearly. In 2010, Democrats lost control of the House. Republicans swept to power in two dozen states. And after this November, they may well gain control of all three branches of government: Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court.

We can argue about whether ObamaCare (a term Republicans coined that Obama has proudly embraced) is flawed or a step in the right direction. I’m of the half-a-loaf school. But why has it generated such hostility? One can point to the individual mandate, but those who cannot pay will be heavily subsidized. In his interview, Frank comes up with another theory, based on his many years trying to gauge the psychology of his constituents. “I think [Obama] underestimated… the sensitivity of people to what they see as an effort to make them share the health care with poor people.”

Johnson didn’t underestimate the sensitivity of white people to share the ballot box with minorities. Almost half a century later, that sensitivity remains. In 2011, after Republicans swept to victory in state legislatures and governorships, they immediately moved to restrict ballot access by enacting burdensome voter registration laws.

They were emboldened by the 2008 Supreme Court decision upholding Indiana’s voter photo ID law. The state could not identify a single case of voter fraud that would be prevented by requiring photo ID, but the Court ruled that the burden of proof was not on Indiana. The burden of proof was on those who claimed changes in voter laws would impose a “significant burden.”

The Supreme Court decision applies to states not under the regulations imposed by the Voting Rights Act. But that Act required jurisdictions with a history of suppressing minority voting to pre-clear any proposed voting regulations with the U.S. Department of Justice. And that law (Section Five) imposes the burden of proof on the state to demonstrate that changes would not abridge the right to vote by minorities. The Justice Department has rejected both Texas and South Carolina’s voter registration changes after concluding that Hispanic voters in Texas, for example, are at least 50 percent more likely than non-Hispanics to lack a driver’s license or a personal state-issued photo ID, the two kinds of photo ID Texas allows.

If a Republican wins the White House, it is likely the Voting Rights Act will no longer be enforced. It is even more likely that health care reform will be overturned. If that should come to pass, would it mean that Johnson and Obama had made political mistakes? Should we have waited even longer to give blacks the right to vote, or to move toward universal health care?

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota and directs its Defending the Public Good Initiative. His books include The New City-States.

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