“Politics is the art of the possible”

Some abolitionist Republicans dissed President Abraham Lincoln for not getting rid of slavery fast enough.

Some Socialists panned President Franklin D. Roosevelt for not taking the New Deal far enough.

Some liberals are all but accusing President Obama of selling out to the Republicans because he’s not calling for a single payer health care plan.

I’m a union-card carrying Hubert Humphrey Democrat. But I’m not with my liberal friends on the sell out charge.

I want single payer just as much as they do. Like many of my union brothers and sisters, I’m for HR 676. But I’m sorry to say I don’t see much evidence that Congress will pass it. 

Even so, I’m glad groups like the All Unions Committee For Single Payer Health Care are keeping the heat on Obama. The president  knows we in organized labor worked hard for his election last November. 

Likewise, it was important for abolitionists to press Lincoln and for Socialists to dog FDR.

The abolitionists and the Socialists were “gadflies” in the mold of Socrates, the great Greek thinker. So is the All Unions Committee.  (Socrates likened himself to a “gadfly” — horse fly — stinging people into action.)

On the other hand, “politics is the art of the possible,” Otto von Bismarck observed. I’m not a fan of Germany’s Iron Chancellor, not by a long shot. But he was right about the politics of possibility.

Lincoln and FDR practiced politics of the possible. Obama — who admires Lincoln and FDR — is doing as they did.

Anyway, the “single payer or nothing” argument doesn’t cut it with me. Nothing is what the Republicans want.

Maybe it’s my Kentucky roots. But compromise was the byword of   “The Great Pacificator,” Henry Clay of Lexington, our greatest statesman. (Lincoln is our greatest native son. But he left us when he was a child.)

Right now, it seems our best change for genuine health care reform is some kind of public option. I see that as a reasonable compromise.

Lincoln and FDR compromised and got most of what they wanted. They had to. They were liberal leaders of a fundamentally conservative land.

Obama’s in the same boat. (America is the most conservative and capitalist of Western industrial democracies.)

Not even all Northerners shared Lincoln’s deep disdain for slavery. So he chose to destroy the South’s peculiar institution by degrees.

By doing so, historians say, he kept the strategic border slave states — including Kentucky — in the Union. Their loss doubtless would have prolonged the Civil War, which, after all, ended slavery.

In the end, Lincoln led us to victory. He went down in history as the Savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator.

FDR was president during the Great Depression. He believed the federal government should help citizens who needed help. That was a radical idea in a nation heretofore wedded to the conservative notion of “rugged individualism.”

So FDR’s New Deal fell short of some liberals’ hopes. But many, if not most, historians believe Roosevelt did as much as he could.

In the end, the New Deal reforms, which included the government-guaranteed right of workers to join unions, helped greatly expand America’s middle class.

To be sure, Lincoln and FDR were cautious reformers. But few historians call them “sell outs.” Most historians rate them as two of our three greatest presidents. (Washington is still number one for successfully getting our ship of state underway.)

Lincoln and FDR paved the way for more reform, though that reform was far too long in coming. The spirit of Lincoln is in the landmark federal civil rights acts of the 1960s. The spirit of FDR is in Medicare and Medicaid, which Congress also approved during the ’60s.

Of course, the abolitionists were right about slavery. We should have outlawed it when we declared our independence from the Mother Country in 1776.

But Lincoln got the job done.

Likewise, it is disgraceful that Jim Crow segregation lasted from the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period to the Johnson presidency.

But LBJ and the Democrats got the job done.

Social Security should have provided us some kind of comprehensive national health insurance program. But it gave Johnson and the Democrats something to build Medicare and Medicaid on.

Now I’m not prepared to give the president a blank check on health care reform. I agree with Rich Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO.

In a recent press conference, Trumka listed “three absolute musts” for health care – a public option, an employer mandate, and no taxes on employer-provided health care. “That means we won’t support the bill if it doesn’t have the public option in it,” he told reporters.

I hope the bill that ends up on Obama’s desk will have all three. That would be a good start toward single payer health care.

Meanwhile, I understand the frustration of the Obama’s-selling-us-out liberals. But they’d do well to heed the words of Leslie McColgin, an unabashed liberal in Kentucky, where liberals are about as common as July blizzards. 

The success of progressivism, McColgin says, is linked to the success of Obama. “United we stand, but divided we will fail,” she warned.

At the same time, it’s also good for progressives — when they’re griping at the president about single payer — to stop and ponder the alternative to Obama-Biden. That would be McCain-Palin. That would mean the status quo on health care, more union-busting and more of the greed-is-good gospel of Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes.

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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2 Responses to “Politics is the art of the possible”

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. PEACE says:

    “Dancin The Boogie ” Support our troops in Afghan for a win ! World Peace Treaty Needed ! It’s possible ! Saw a cat hang with a crow on National Geographic and who would have thought that could happen ! Thank-you and enjoyed reading what you had to say !