The Tea Party’s Old Line on Health Care

According to Bruce Bartlett in the NY Times, rational businessmen and politicians are backing away from the Tea Party.  Today’s Virginia state elections, which pit a Tea Party line up of Republican candidates for Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General against moderate Democrats, will likely show again how self-defeating it has become for Republicans to court the favor of Tea Partiers.

Of course, it may be too late.  By welcoming the Tea Party into its ranks, and by gerrymandering voting districts so thoroughly in 2010 that in many districts Democratic voters are irrelevant, the Republicans have created a situation in which only extreme right Republicans can get nominated for political office, as absent any option or threat from the left, intimidation and fervor continue to drag the party to the right.

Still, I was startled to see how old the Tea Party approach to national health care is — we have actually seen their die-hard opposition to helping poor people get healthy before.

In September, The New York Review of Books ran a wonderful story on the origins of New York City’s Public Health Department early in this century.  Its novel Bureau of Child Hygiene was led by a brilliant and determined woman, Sara Josephine Baker, who was too stubborn to simply let tens of thousands of young children and babies die in the tenements of lower Manhattan.  Determined to examine every aspect of what made babies healthy or sick, she pioneered having civil servants visit new mothers, instruct them in washing and feeding their babies, and even found that love and contact with infants was vital to normal healthy growth. Her Bureau is credited with having saved 90,000 young lives by the time of her retirement in 1923.

Yet was her success embraced?  Not by everyone!  In fact, the American Medical Association opposed spending public money on improving the health of babies and their mothers as “Bolshevism”  (today the less nasty word is ‘socialized medicine’, but the intended insult is the same).  As the NYRB story reports, here is how a young New England doctor explained the AMA’s position to a congressional committee:

“We oppose this bill because, if you are going to save the lives of all these women and children at public expense, what inducement will there be for young men to study medicine?” Senator Sheppard, the chairman, stiffened and leaned forward: “Perhaps I didn’t understand you correctly,” he said: “You surely don’t mean that you want women and children to die unnecessarily or live in constant danger of sickness so there will be something for young doctors to do?” “Why not?” said the New England doctor, who did at least have the courage to admit the issue: “That’s the will of God, isn’t it?”

That was in the late 1910s.  How far have we come today, when Republican governors refuse to expand Medicaid (medical insurance for the poor) because doing so would require them to accept more Federal funds?  Or when Tea Partiers oppose Obama’s Affordable Care Act because it forces healthy people to acquire health insurance to create a large enough pool of insured to keep health care affordable even for the sick and the poor.

There was a time, before “greed is good” and billionaire hedge fund managers defending their tax breaks on carried interest, when the rich felt slightly embarrassed by their exceedingly good fortune (for they recognized that fortune had some role in their wealth); and they felt their wealth imposed a moral obligation to help provide for those less fortunate.  That was the teaching of the Bible, the Koran, and even common sense morality.

John Kasich, the Republic Governor of Ohio, heeded that call when he recently overrode his state’s Tea-Party controlled legislature to expand Medicaid.  Kasich said: “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small.  But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”  Nonetheless, the Wall Street journal, which reported Kasich’s actions, castigated him for betraying party principles and warned him that “Republicans get a vote before St. Peter does.”   Amazing that it has come to this: the Republicans giving themselves priority above St. Peter and tossing out the precepts of Christian charity as no longer part of their party line.

Can this possibly be a path to electoral success in what is still a Christian — and we hope a moral — country?   Watch the election returns tonight carefully.  There may be some signs that the high water mark of the Tea Party has passed.  Or conversely, that they will be digging in to the bitter end.

The Democrats’ “War on Poverty” was not a complete success; it was left with holes and loopholes. Yet from Medicaid to food-stamps, its programs have proved durable and popular. It remains to be seen if the Tea Party’s all out “War on the Poor” will succeed; I certainly hope not.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in U.S. Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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