Deja Vu All Over Again

In mid-October of 1992 I was working as the Director of Communications and Public Policy for Local 880 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  It was an exciting time.  A young, virtually unknown governor named Bill Clinton had used charisma, big ideas, and a sweeping vision of hope and change to capture the Democratic presidential nomination.  Now, with three weeks until the general election, he was poised to win the presidency and end the Reagan-Bush regime.

One evening following a meeting to discuss the get-out-the-vote plan that would enable Clinton to win Ohio and the presidency, a couple of union organizers and I were standing at the bar of the now-demolished Boatyard Restaurant on the north side of Youngstown.  Our mood was celebratory.  Great things were about to happen.  The world was about to change.

Suddenly, an extremely well dressed stranger made his way toward us through the crowd.  His look was intense.  He was pointing at my chest.  I was apprehensive.  He could have been the owner of a non-union grocery store, and many of them were fuming about the “Hold the Line” informational picketing program I had helped the UFCW develop.  He stopped inches from my face.

“I want that,” he said pointing at my Clinton-Gore button. “Can I have it?”

“You want this?  But you’re a Republican, aren’t you, I mean you look like one,” I said.

“Absolutely, lifelong.  But I have a Chamber of Commerce meeting tomorrow and I want to walk in wearing a Clinton button.  I’m a small businessman who is voting for Clinton because he’s going to fix the health care mess and that will save my company,” he said.  “And I want everyone at the Chamber meeting to know it.”

I gave him the button.  He beamed.  “This is an exciting time,” he said, shaking my hand. “We’re going to solve a real problem and make this a better country.  For the first time in my life I can’t wait to vote.”

I knew then that Bill Clinton would win the election based in large part on his promise to reform America’s deeply flawed health care delivery system.  A system bedeviled by exploding costs that threatened the viability of corporations like Chrysler and GM and that left 41 million people uninsured.

This encounter verified what the polls were saying: that health care reform was the third most important issue among likely voters and that, according to a survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, Clinton held a 55% to 27% lead on the issue, a margin that would grow to 42% by election day, even though his reform plan was a sparse outline at best.  People simply believed he would get the job done.

So did those of us in the labor movement.  The health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and yes, even Richard Nixon was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Clinton was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Now, flash forward to 2008.  Every Democratic candidate for the White House, including one named Clinton, vows to remedy the ills that afflict America’s health care system: exploding costs that will soon contribute to the  bankruptcy of  major corporations like Chrysler and GM and  a cadre of 51 million people who have no access to care.

It becomes the third most significant issue to voters, trailing closely behind concerns about the economy and the nation’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq.  The Party’s nominee, a young, charismatic, big thinking but virtually unknown senator from Illinois campaigns aggressively and effectively on the issue, although his reform plan is a sparse outline at best.

As in 1992, that minor shortcoming doesn’t seem to matter.  Voters simply believed he would get the job done.  So they made him president, and the health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Richard Nixon, and yes, Bill Clinton was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Obama was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Which brings us to where we stand today: once again on the precipice of disappointment.

That is because despite the President’s commitment to reform, including the development of the government-backed health care insurance option that is essential to holding down costs and providing universal access, we’ve already lost the first skirmish in the battle.  And that means we may not even have the war.

The skirmish broke out when the Congressional Budget Office released cost estimates for establishing the public plan and extending coverage to some, but not all Americans who don’t have it now.  The trillion dollar price tag choked pro-reform advocates in Congress and the White House and emboldened the coalition of opponents that has killed every attempt to regenerate our health care system over the last eight decades.

By week’s end Congressional Democrats were already in reverse, concerned, pundits said, that the president was “overreaching.” Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and the other intellectual Lilliputians who are the voice of the GOP were rejoicing, and the folks at the AMA, Pharma, and America’s Health Insurance Plans were smugly smiling—they’d seen this movie before and they really liked the ending.

Whether they will still be grinning a few months from now largely depends on whether those of us who supported Obama in 2008 are willing to jump into the fray in 2009 and help him write a new ending to the health care reform saga.  If we engage, educate, organize, and fight we may be able to win.  If we do not, well, sometime in the next 20 years, a story will be written about yet another charismatic candidate who won the presidency by promising to fix America’s broken health care system.

Leo Jennings

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