The brain dead party

Russell Baker

May 01, 1991|By Russell Baker

IT'S OBVIOUS the United States is ready for what used to be called socialized medicine. The Democrats ought to be leading the agitation for it and the fact that they aren't is further evidence suggesting their party is brain dead.

If it weren't, Democrats would surely be beating the feathers and dust out of George Bush for doing nothing while the country's rickety private health-insurance system totters toward collapse.

Statistics illuminate the political wealth waiting to be mined from the health-care issue: 33 million Americans with no health-insurance coverage at all, millions more afraid to move into better jobs for fear of losing their coverage and ever more insurers confining coverage to the healthiest, which is to say, people who least need it.

More: There's the skyrocketing price of insurance for people who can't get group coverage. For people who can, there are constantly rising costs or constantly shrinking benefits, sometimes both simultaneously.

The anecdotal evidence that this is a dynamite political issue is also compelling. High on the list of Great American Nightmares is catastrophic illness, so called not only because it is hard on body and soul but also because it wreaks catastrophe on a family's financial health.

Even big corporations are starting to cry "Mercy!" Not long ago American Telephone & Telegraph took a strike when it tried to lighten the ever-swelling burden of its employees' health plan. Wherever a new labor contract is being negotiated this spring, there you will find management trying to reduce its commitment to employees' health-care programs.

Large corporations are big mules in Washington. When they hurt, Congress and presidents weep for their suffering, and relief is soon on the way. On health, however, even big business can't expect much from President Bush.

Democrats' refusal to make it their issue shows how desperately they now need a risk-taking prophet to bring the party back from the dead as Barry Goldwater brought the Republican Party back from the other side in the early 1960s.

Goldwater did the trick by standing for something. "Conservatism," he called it. It may have looked more like old-fashioned, radical Western populism, but whatever it was, it re-introduced ideology into a politics stultified by people who stood mainly for doing only what was necessary to get elected.

This was called "pragmatism," and Goldwater's suggestion that people in politics should stand for something was at first treated as lunacy. Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign slogan -- "In your heart you know he's right" -- was often edited by Democratic vandals to read, "In your heart you know he's nuts."

The Democrats now need just such a nut. Goldwater took a brutal beating from Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and in the process started his "conservatives" toward domination of American politics.

The 1992 election ought to be the natural opportunity for Democrats to renew their acquaintance with ideas about governing a country with staggering problems. If reports of Bush's invincibility are not exaggerated, what an opportunity for some live Democrat to start calling the brethren up from the grave.

A party with nothing to lose can afford the luxury of being a party of ideas. After all these years Democrats could finally stand for something vital. For a national health-care program, for instance, even though it sounds daring and outrageous, having been long stigmatized by the medical lobby as "socialized medicine."

A nation being bankrupted at the hospital might not be so easily scared by the bugaboo word "socialized." Anyhow there are ideas whose time will come, and it's surely better politics, if you're doomed to lose, to stand for those ideas than to try out-Bushing Bush, as Democrats commonly do nowadays, by denouncing taxes and debt.

What a pathetic case the Democrats are when they try to be more Republican than the Republicans, when they cringe before the gun lobby, boast of their hatred for taxes and turn their backs on America's squalor because confronting it might hurt them politically.

Democrats aren't needed for such things. The number of Republicans available for the work is more than adequate. Hey, you Demos, get out of that grave -- there's a whole country out here waiting for somebody to stand for something!

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