Slavery and the Health Care Debate

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid compared conservative opponents of his massive takeover of the American health system to slaveholders and segregationists. He said, "If you think you've heard these same excuses before, you're right. ... When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down, it's too early, things aren't bad enough.'"

Maybe there needs to be an axiom established that is similar to Godwin's Law: As opposition to liberal policy increases, the probability that a Democrat in office will call someone a racist rises dramatically. Couching policy in racial rhetoric is becoming all too typical for today's Democratic Party. 

But how does the debate over health care compare with the congressional debate over ending slavery during the nineteenth century? The first major problem with the comparison: There was no common ground between the pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in Congress. Surely Mr. Reid remembers another president from Illinois saying, "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided." 

Unlike the issue of slavery before the Civil War, where the opposing sides had such firmly entrenched stances that every chance of compromise eventually collapsed, Republicans and Democrats today agree on the need for health care reform. Our debate revolves around how to fix the health care system, not whether or not we should do it. Despite the continual talking points offered by Obama, Reid, and Pelosi claiming otherwise, Republicans Paul Ryan, Tom Coburn, and others have written a plan for reform far more concise than the current 2,000-page proposal, a plan that uses the market to help lower costs and create a more effective health care system.

When conservatives talk about slowing the current bill, they are not talking about stopping reform altogether. Rather, they want to ensure that the reform Congress passes actually works and will receive lasting support from the American people. Republicans and Democrats have worked together to create successful reforms in the past. In 1994, with Republicans controlling Congress and a Democrat controlling the White House, both parties passed effective welfare reform.

This leads to the second major problem in Reid's comparison: unlike the Democratic push with the health care bill, the congressional debate over how to properly end slavery was a bipartisan effort. Two Republicans and one Democrat worked together to write the Thirteenth Amendment. It took a year to discuss the plan in Congress and another to assure its passage by the states. All three Reconstruction Amendments saw open debate throughout the country. It took time to work on the plans, but the language of the amendments provided the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

However, the most important difference between the congressional debate about ending slavery after the Civil War and today's health care conversation is that the majority opposed slavery. There was no need to ram the Reconstruction Amendments through Congress out of fear of them losing support. Over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, ten months after the initial draft of the Thirteenth Amendment was submitted to Congress as a joint resolution, and five months after Lincoln wrote the "To Whom It May Concern" letter in which he stated that peace would come only with the abandonment of slavery, Lincoln beat George McClellan by ten percent in the presidential election of 1864. 

While Reid is correct in his assertion that slaveholders used equal representation for each state in the Senate to prevent the restriction of slavery in the territories that were passed by the northern-dominated House before the Civil War, the antislavery movement eventually won the day because the public majority supported it. Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election without a single electoral vote from the South because of his antislavery platform. Public support is where the starkest difference between the debate about slavery and today's health care lies.

Polls have shown that Americans oppose the health care reform proposed in Congress. Rasmussen has reported for months that the majority of Americans disapprove of the Democratic health care plan. In fact, his latest poll shows that while 41% either favor or strongly favor the proposal, 40% strongly oppose the bill currently on the table. Rasmussen is not alone.

Pollster.com's aggregate of polls shows that 53% of Americans oppose the current health care plan, compared to only 38% who support it. Polls from Fox, CNN, and Quinnipiac all agree that most Americans consider the current health care bill wrongheaded. 

The absence of public support for the current health care bill is the most glaring difference between the congressional push to free the enslaved and the Democratic attempt to overhaul America's health care system. When antislavery politicians gained control of Congress after secession, they knew that they did not have to rush the process. Antislavery congressmen understood they had the backing of the majority, so they did not fear a proper and thoughtful debate about the best way to enshrine freedom for everyone in America. They wanted to get the job done right and see that the reform would last. Pelosi and Reid do not have that luxury. If they want to give lectures about being on the wrong side of history, they should first make sure they are on the right side of the American people.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and studies nineteenth-century American politics.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid compared conservative opponents of his massive takeover of the American health system to slaveholders and segregationists. He said, "If you think you've heard these same excuses before, you're right. ... When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down, it's too early, things aren't bad enough.'"

Maybe there needs to be an axiom established that is similar to Godwin's Law: As opposition to liberal policy increases, the probability that a Democrat in office will call someone a racist rises dramatically. Couching policy in racial rhetoric is becoming all too typical for today's Democratic Party. 

But how does the debate over health care compare with the congressional debate over ending slavery during the nineteenth century? The first major problem with the comparison: There was no common ground between the pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in Congress. Surely Mr. Reid remembers another president from Illinois saying, "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided." 

Unlike the issue of slavery before the Civil War, where the opposing sides had such firmly entrenched stances that every chance of compromise eventually collapsed, Republicans and Democrats today agree on the need for health care reform. Our debate revolves around how to fix the health care system, not whether or not we should do it. Despite the continual talking points offered by Obama, Reid, and Pelosi claiming otherwise, Republicans Paul Ryan, Tom Coburn, and others have written a plan for reform far more concise than the current 2,000-page proposal, a plan that uses the market to help lower costs and create a more effective health care system.

When conservatives talk about slowing the current bill, they are not talking about stopping reform altogether. Rather, they want to ensure that the reform Congress passes actually works and will receive lasting support from the American people. Republicans and Democrats have worked together to create successful reforms in the past. In 1994, with Republicans controlling Congress and a Democrat controlling the White House, both parties passed effective welfare reform.

This leads to the second major problem in Reid's comparison: unlike the Democratic push with the health care bill, the congressional debate over how to properly end slavery was a bipartisan effort. Two Republicans and one Democrat worked together to write the Thirteenth Amendment. It took a year to discuss the plan in Congress and another to assure its passage by the states. All three Reconstruction Amendments saw open debate throughout the country. It took time to work on the plans, but the language of the amendments provided the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

However, the most important difference between the congressional debate about ending slavery after the Civil War and today's health care conversation is that the majority opposed slavery. There was no need to ram the Reconstruction Amendments through Congress out of fear of them losing support. Over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, ten months after the initial draft of the Thirteenth Amendment was submitted to Congress as a joint resolution, and five months after Lincoln wrote the "To Whom It May Concern" letter in which he stated that peace would come only with the abandonment of slavery, Lincoln beat George McClellan by ten percent in the presidential election of 1864. 

While Reid is correct in his assertion that slaveholders used equal representation for each state in the Senate to prevent the restriction of slavery in the territories that were passed by the northern-dominated House before the Civil War, the antislavery movement eventually won the day because the public majority supported it. Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election without a single electoral vote from the South because of his antislavery platform. Public support is where the starkest difference between the debate about slavery and today's health care lies.

Polls have shown that Americans oppose the health care reform proposed in Congress. Rasmussen has reported for months that the majority of Americans disapprove of the Democratic health care plan. In fact, his latest poll shows that while 41% either favor or strongly favor the proposal, 40% strongly oppose the bill currently on the table. Rasmussen is not alone.

Pollster.com's aggregate of polls shows that 53% of Americans oppose the current health care plan, compared to only 38% who support it. Polls from Fox, CNN, and Quinnipiac all agree that most Americans consider the current health care bill wrongheaded. 

The absence of public support for the current health care bill is the most glaring difference between the congressional push to free the enslaved and the Democratic attempt to overhaul America's health care system. When antislavery politicians gained control of Congress after secession, they knew that they did not have to rush the process. Antislavery congressmen understood they had the backing of the majority, so they did not fear a proper and thoughtful debate about the best way to enshrine freedom for everyone in America. They wanted to get the job done right and see that the reform would last. Pelosi and Reid do not have that luxury. If they want to give lectures about being on the wrong side of history, they should first make sure they are on the right side of the American people.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University and studies nineteenth-century American politics.