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Opinion

Battle over health-care reform: vital lessons from America's founding fathers

Despite the ongoing attempts of House Republicans to kill President Obama's health-care reform law, the history of America's intense debate over ratifying the Constitution should make us optimistic about the law being accepted, improved, and implemented.

By Len M. NicholsStaff writer / February 24, 2011



Fairfax, Va.

History lights a path out of partisan morass, if we will but see. The new Republican House has read the Constitution, reverently, voted to repeal and defund health-care reform, defiantly, and listened to the president’s views on health care and our union, dutifully.

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As a next step, I highly recommend they read Pauline Maier’s masterful “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-88,” before plunging back into business as usual. Two lessons in particular speak to our recent health-reform debate: 1) Complex proposals may be best worked out in secret, but must be made clear before too long; 2) State-level debates can play essential roles in the acceptance of fundamental change in our country, if debaters are honest with one another.

Four ways to kick the polarized partisan habit

Whatever Glenn Beck may tell his admirers, our Constitution was written by elites behind closed doors. George Washington, coaxed out of retirement so that “better” men would also agree to become convention delegates, insisted that no one talk about deliberations outside their meetings in Philadelphia.

An elite, discreet, group

Washington’s authority was complete; for four months our most thoughtful founding fathers wrote, debated, compromised, stood firm, and rewrote it, without press leaks or contraband drafts being circulated for public effect. He understood the final product would be stronger and more durable if debates were not hamstrung by specific constituencies’ demands. He asked for intellectual and moral judgments from the individual delegates themselves, and in so doing was able to keep the focus on what mattered most, making a government strong enough to enable our new country of free citizens to stand among the family of nations, then and now. Importantly, they agreed upon the goal, and in the end, all but a handful signed the document. It was then revealed to a public that became as divided as the rhetorical attacks were sharp.

Sound familiar? An unsustainable status quo, partially remedied by a complicated document that was badly explained initially, whose provisions were falsely accused of heinous implications (death panels, job killing, budget busting, etc.), that then led to “patriotic” calls for outright rejection.

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