1965 All over Again?

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, April 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

1965 All over Again?


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

The reach of persistent progressivism.

Last week brought a lot of talk about how health-care reform (HCR) was the most sweeping piece of domestic legislation since 1965. That's astonishing when you think about it--nearly half a century with no major bills (welfare reform in 1996 and No Child Left Behind in 2002 weren't nearly as big). Considering that Congress no longer decides if the nation goes to war, this is not much of a record for the world's leading democracy.

Now the same House Democrats who groused about the bill in mid-March are giddy over their role in shaping history. After jumping off a high, scary cliff, they expected to hit rocks, and instead found themselves bathed in warm water, ready to jump again. Achieving, it turned out, felt better than posturing. The question is whether the success of President Obama's emerging governing philosophy--what might be called persistent progressivism--can be extended to realms beyond health care.

Exercising power is like exercising your body--it gets easier as you get in shape. Before HCR, members of Congress were couch potatoes when it came to legislating. Most bills were the product of precut deals by the leadership; they existed to expand or re slice existing services and programs, to work as party-identity badges, or to make the other side look bad in campaigns. This last trick is still common. Witness Sen. Tom Coburn's effort to get Democratic senators trying to complete work on reconciliation to vote against preventing rapists and child molesters from getting government-funded erectile-dysfunction medications in the new health-care ex-changes. You can see the TV ad now: Viagra meets Willie Horton.

Coburn's amendment failed badly, which lends it significance beyond the snickering. Seriousness may be making a comeback in Washington. Goofy stunts in Congress are still a daily occurrence, and the ethically challenged congressman will always be with us. But if Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid can continue to get Democrats to focus on real challenges instead of gesture politics, this could be 1965 all over again. Lyndon Johnson's domestic achievements that year have been overshadowed by Vietnam and slimed by the right. Besides Medicare and civil rights, he pushed through immigration reform and the first federal aid for education. …

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