HEALTH CARE REFORM Did H.R. 3590 pass because we the people fought for it? Or because Obama and Pelosi did?
After the last 18 months of health care reform debate, I pray that I never again hear the words “shoved down our throats” applied to anything but zookeepers and unruly animals. For once, Barack Obama, the master of weaving political events into a sympathetic narrative, could not compete with the GOP’s yarn that the Democrats were subjecting the country to a terrifying bill most Americans don’t like.
This critique strikes at the heart of Obama’s campaign message, his trusty first-person-plural. It warns of the antithesis of grassroots. It laments that stalwart conservatives’ worst fear is coming to pass: Democrats in power are imposing their socialist principles against the will of the people.
Before the House passed H.R.3590, most national polls showed slight popular disapproval of the bill. That evidence was enough for many Republicans and some Democrats to decry Obama’s efforts as a betrayal of America’s confidence. He promised to stand for us, they said, and now he stands alone.
Rhetoric aside, it is hard to make a reasonable argument that Obama and the other Democrats working to pass health care reform were employing a top-down strategy, bullying congressmen into passing an unpopular bill.
For one thing, such an argument would ignore that most of the moderate House Democrats who ultimately voted for the bill did so precisely because they felt it was electorally advantageous. For all her strategy, Nancy Pelosi’s bargaining chips were limited. The best, and in some cases only, persuasive mechanism at her disposal was the argument that when the dust settles, even the constituents of more conservative districts will come around to liking the legislation. As Obama told House Democrats shortly before their vote, the best way to cut through the misinformation that had poisoned the rhetorical well was to pass the bill, giving the American people the chance to see for themselves how it would improve their lives. A Gallup poll from the day after the House vote has already confirmed this expectation, showing 49 percent of the public glad that it passed and only 40 percent displeased. Those numbers don’t exactly suggest a technocratic subversion of direct democracy.
Additionally, and more importantly, the health care reform bill became law in no small part thanks to the efforts of ordinary Americans. It passed because of the thousands of bloggers who posted the phone numbers of congressional offices and the tens of thousands of readers who called those offices. It passed because of the doctors, nurses and union workers who persuaded their organizations to throw their support behind the bill. It passed because of the small business owners who took the time to educate themselves about the legislation, discovered the new plan would give them the financial freedom they need to survive and asked their representatives to support it.
These people may not have represented a majority of the country, but their efforts were undeniably grassroots. Their energy and tenacity made it possible for moderate congressional Democrats to follow their conscience and vote for the bill instead of capitulating to misplaced fears about November.
The bill — now law — developed in a robustly democratic way. Moreover, it is exactly the kind of change Obama promised, if less far-reaching than many would like.
Making a difference is hard. Sometimes it seems laughable to think that the miniscule effect of making a phone call, or knocking on a neighbor’s door or even voting could possibly be worth the effort. Even local activism like petitioning your school’s administration to change its housing policy may seem daunting, to say nothing of advocating — or fighting against — national health care reform.
But the benefit is not just in the outcome. Every minute you spend writing a letter to your senator makes you a better citizen. Every newspaper article you read better prepares you to improve your community and your country. And even though he may not agree with you, every neighbor who answers your knock is reminded that he lives in a country whose governance really is “by the people.”
At the end of the day, that investment is what makes a civil society. The real reason that health care reform was so difficult to pass? Almost no one in this country took the time to understand it. And it became law because just enough of us did.
Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College.