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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
The foundational public debate over the Constitution was then conducted in the individual states, separately and mostly sequentially, but with the benefit of knowing arguments pro and con used in other states. This enabled claims and counterclaims to be anticipated, sharpened, and improved as time passed. In quite a few cases the majority of state convention delegates were against ratification at the outset, but only Rhode Island and North Carolina failed to ratify in the end. And both of them came around very soon, by large margins, after the new government was formed and operating.
What were the major objections to the Constitution as it emerged from Philadelphia?
There were many specifics – unlimited number of terms for national office holders, the power to set conditions for state elections and to levy direct taxes on the people – but the unifying theme was a fear of federal power that could be checked neither by the states nor the people, for there was no Bill of Rights in the original Constitution. This fear was palpable, since the costly war with Britain over their, and our, essential liberties was so fresh.
Similarly today, the core argument in the constitutional objection to the individual mandate is not about ways to make private insurance markets work better for more people, but reflects the fear that a federal government that can require people to purchase insurance has limitless power to restrict our freedom.