Saturday, March 13, 2010

Time to Act

My friend and colleague John Lane referred me (in exasperation) to this piece by Jon Meacham in Newsweek. In it, Meacham argues the value of gradualism. He quotes with favor Robert Penn Warren, who said: "Gradualism is all you'll get. History, like nature, knows no jumps." At first I thought, "well, that's hard to argue with," and I wondered what had gotten John so worked up.

But as I read on, that became clear. Meacham is not merely arguing that change takes place gradually. He is arguing that the American political system's current and frequent paralysis is a virtue because it reflects this gradualism. And that's where he goes wrong.

There's a world of difference between the way any society gradually changes and the inability of a political system to reflect changes that have already taken place, or to lead in changes that need to take place. Meacham never mentions it, but it seems likely that what he has in mind when he says "Better to govern creakily than to be victim of passions moving too quickly" is the current impasse over health insurance reform.

You can say many things about the history of this issue, but "moving too quickly" is not anywhere on the list. As President Obama has taken to noting, the idea was first proposed by a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, over 100 years ago. FDR's commission on social security proposed including it in that plan in 1935, but the president thought that would be a little too much for Congress to bite off at one time, and was better left for another day. When Harry Truman saw the abysmal state of public health as revealed by the physicals of men who were drafted during World War II, he decided the time was right. Demagogues cried "socialized medicine" and, at the height of the cold war, that was all it took to defeat the idea. LBJ scaled back the ambition, and proposed covering only the elderly and the poor. Exercising his formidable political skills, he got that bill through Congress and signed it in the presence of Harry Truman.

That was 1965. Until last year, only Bill Clinton had dared to attempt significant reform, and he failed. For the last year, the topic has been under active consideration by Congress, and for at least a year before that, it was one of the most prominent topics in the 2008 presidential primaries and general election. To pass a bill now is not moving too quickly. You can object if you will on the merits of the bill, but don't try to couch it in some grand theory of how history moves slowly.

As a nation, we have moved slowly. Too slowly, I'd say. Not just on this issue, but on most issues of great import. It took the bloodiest war in American history to end the moral outrage of slavery. It took the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to get safety regulations in the workplace. It took the worst of economic calamities to start building a social safety net. It took the deaths of countless citizens lynched and one of the greatest grassroots protest movements in history to end segregation.

That last example brings to mind a story that encapsulates Meacham's basic misreading of the past. Addressing what ails us, he says, "is at best a gradual undertaking." When the civil rights movement was building in the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower responded to a church sermon on the need for civil rights legislation by saying "You can't legislate morality." Morality only changes gradually. Martin Luther King responded that while Eisenhower was correct in one sense, he was missing something else: "A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me." Law can never make a society perfect, but it can make its rules a little more just. The law can't change hearts, but the law can lead.

Years later, Dr. King wrote in his marvelous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" of the cost of waiting. "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' ... This 'Wait" has almost always meant 'Never.'" Today, calls to "wait," to "start with a clean sheet of paper," mean the same thing: never. Our creaky political system needs to act. If this bill turns out to be flawed, then let it be fixed. If it turns out to be unworkable, then let it be repealed and replaced with something better. But let's be done with pretending that we need to take more time because history knows no jumps. We need to act.

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