HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Mr. Smith, Stay Home

Voters want to send Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith to Washington, as they seek a blend of Saint George, Lochinvar, and the Ordinary Joe to wade into the muck of politics and rescue us from … government? Liberals? Whatever the foe, the voters don’t care. Only a neophyte can save us.

So voters are embracing the candidate who boasts “I’m not a politician. I’ve never held office.” In one race, a seasoned politician, running against a neophyte, pleaded in frustration: “Do you want an amateur surgeon operating on you?” No matter — the neophytes have tapped into the public’s yen for clean-slate change. And the CEOs who earned millions in the private sector are spending millions to save us. (Ironically, with failing businesses, shareholders don’t call in amateurs.)

Only in Hollywood, though, have Mr. Smiths wrought wonders. In government, the politicians — those who made deals, brokered compromises, fine-tuned proposals, all while listening to constituents — are the agents of change. Here are a few examples.

Lyndon Johnson was the deal-maker’s deal-maker. Historians describe his powerful rule over the Senate and everyone within its range as he bartered favors. We credit him with pushing through Civil Rights Legislation — not an easy sell in a still-integrated nation. On the health front, he pushed through Medicare. John Kennedy — another veteran from the muck of electoral politics — proposed national health insurance for the elderly and the disabled; LBJ navigated it through a reluctant Congress.

Say “Richard Nixon,” and the Rorschach elicits a slew of yucks. The illegal craftiness of Watergate’s dirty tricks brought him down. But this politician pushed for Food Stamps, a program that ended the atrocious malnutrition that had plagued swathes of the population for decades. Today the problem is obesity; but 50 years ago some Americans lived close to subsistence. Originally Richard Nixon envisioned a national welfare program, run by the federal government, administered by the states. That did not pass; today welfare remains a state program. But food stamps became a model of help, thanks to a crafty pol.

Claude Pepper was always a politician. In 1929, this 29-year old lawyer was elected to the Florida state legislature. In 1936 he won a United States Senate seat, but lost it in 1951. He returned home to earn some money, then in 1963 won a Congressional seat in a new Florida district. Along the way he made good decisions and bad ones (his early admiration of Joseph Stalin belongs in the latter category). Historians credit him with strengthening and safeguarding both Medicare and Social Security — including the ban on a mandatory retirement age.

George W. Bush sank so low in popularity ratings that he may have set a new bar. Elected in a legal flurry of illegible chads, he oversaw the deregulation that spawned a new class of mega-millionaires, as well as today’s steep recession. Yet this president added a drug benefit to Medicare. For years elderly constituents had struggled to pay for costly pharmaceuticals. Some states subsidized drugs, depending upon income and drug; some pharmaceutical manufacturers offered their own largesse; some seniors smuggled drugs from Canada. Critics criticize (that is their métier) Plan D: it costs too much for seniors; the government cannot regulate drug prices; it is cumbersome. But at last seniors have catastrophic pharmaceutical insurance.

As any first-timer will admit, it is easy to campaign against a veteran politician. The politician has a flawed track record: anybody who makes decisions will make some boners. The politician has made enemies: every decision benefits one person, hurts another. The politician has courted special interests, wooing campaign contributions along with votes. Unless the politician is independently wealthy, s/he must woo. The neophyte emerges, purer than Caesar’s wife: no track record, no ties, no enemies. Lots of ideological rhetoric.

Yet the politician has heeded not just special interests but constituents. S/he has compromised; every law reflects give and take negotiations. S/he has worked with people he considers stupid, Neanderthal, even crazy. And with people who consider him reprehensible. Hardly the same setting as a corporate board-room, where staff, shareholders, and board members rarely question, much less malign, the CEO.

So please, Mr. Smiths, plunge into the political maelstrom, but start in Annapolis, or Tallahassee, or Concord. Run for school committee, town council, state legislature. Wade into the muck, so that when you ascend to Washington, you are adept enough at compromise and deal-making to help us.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2010

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2010 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652