Opinion

Before health care reform, Republicans weren't always the party of 'No!'

They all rejected health care reform, but a great many Republicans once voted for the very programs – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid – that conservatives now denounce as socialism.

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Remember when Republicans in Congress were free men and women?

Not a single GOP member of Congress voted for the massive economic stimulus package last year. And the most significant act of social legislation in decades – healthcare reform – passed this year without a single Republican vote, either. Leading party figures have promised no cooperation with Democrats for the rest of the year.

No wonder the party is becoming known as the "G-No-P." Such extreme partisanship has not always been its hallmark. Many Republicans actually supported key social and economic bills proposed by liberal Democratic presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

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Although many conservatives denounced it as "socialism," 84 percent of House Republicans and 76 percent of Senate Republicans voted in favor of Social Security in 1935. In light of the Republican plan to run on repealing healthcare reform, it is worth noting that the 1936 Republican presidential candidate, Alf Landon, ran against the "cruel hoax" and "paternal government" that he said Social Security represented. FDR trounced him.

It's been forgotten, but 80 percent of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And 97 percent of Senate Republicans and 85 percent of House Republicans voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

More startling, given the completely unified voice of the party's members of Congress today shouting "No!" to the provision of health insurance for all Americans, 51 percent of Republican members of the House and 43 percent of the party's senators who cast votes on the 1965 bill creating Medicare and Medicaid favored these government healthcare programs.

The extraordinary partisanship exhibited by Republicans today did not arise until the late 1980s and early '90s. More than any other figure, it was Newt Gingrich who, after he became the House Republican whip in 1989, transformed the GOP into the "Party of No." By 1993, not a single Republican would vote for President Bill Clinton's budget, which included a modest increase in the top marginal tax rate.

Toeing a rigid ideological line, Republicans predicted the tax increase would cause the economy to collapse, and not a single member deviated from that party line. In fact, the Clinton budget was followed by the longest stretch of economic growth in US history – and it created a budget surplus!

Karl Rove continued the strategy of bitter division during the presidency of George W. Bush and then Republicans greeted President Obama by working for his failure.

The Grand Old Party once allowed members to think for themselves. The nation would benefit substantially from a restoration of Republicans' lost freedom of thought and action.

Robert S. McElvaine is Chisholm professor of arts & letters at Millsaps College. His latest book is the 25th anniversary edition of his classic, "The Great Depression," with a new introduction comparing that era with today.

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