Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The contributions of liberals

Today's column by Bob Herbert extols the contributions of liberals to the U.S. over the years. It's an interesting read. The thrust of the column is as follows:
Civil rights? Women’s rights? Liberals went to the mat for them time and again against ugly, vicious and sometimes murderous opposition. They should be forever proud.

The liberals who didn’t have a clue gave us Social Security and unemployment insurance, both of which were contained in the original Social Security Act. Most conservatives despised the very idea of this assistance to struggling Americans. Republicans hated Social Security, but most were afraid to give full throat to their opposition in public at the height of the Depression.

“In the procedural motions that preceded final passage,” wrote historian Jean Edward Smith in his biography, “FDR,” “House Republicans voted almost unanimously against Social Security. But when the final up-or-down vote came on April 19 [1935], fewer than half were prepared to go on record against.”

Liberals who didn’t have a clue gave us Medicare and Medicaid. Quick, how many of you (or your loved ones) are benefiting mightily from these programs, even as we speak. The idea that Republicans are proud of Ronald Reagan, who saw Medicare as “the advance wave of socialism,” while Democrats are ashamed of Lyndon Johnson, whose legislative genius made this wonderful, life-saving concept real, is insane.

...Humiliation imposed by custom and enforced by government had been the order of the day for blacks and women before men and women of good will and liberal persuasion stepped up their long (and not yet ended) campaign to change things. Liberals gave this country Head Start and legal services and the food stamp program. They fought for cleaner air (there was a time when you could barely see Los Angeles) and cleaner water (there were rivers in America that actually caught fire).
A few points:

* According to Herbert liberals reached their heyday in the 1960s (civil rights, Johnson's Great Society programs) and haven't really accomplished anything of note since the 1970s (environmental legislation).

* Arguably the greatest public policy success story of the past 20 years is the undoing and reform of welfare -- i.e. drastically reducing a program liberals have shoved down our throats that wreaked havoc on the American family. That is strangely absent from Herbert's column.

* Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid are huge unfunded liabilities to the tune of trillions of dollars. Excuse me if I am not deeply thankful for their existence. One can also argue that Social Security has been a force against a culture of saving and thrift while government involvement in health care has contributed to spiraling inflation in that field.

* Herbert reaches back to the 1930s to discuss the votes of Republicans but is again strangely absent on the topic when discussing civil rights legislation. Here are the vote tallies:

The original House version:

  • Democratic Party: 152-96 (61%-39%)
  • Republican Party: 138-34 (80%-20%)

The Senate version:

  • Democratic Party: 46-21 (69%-31%)
  • Republican Party: 27-6 (82%-18%)

The Senate version, voted on by the House:

  • Democratic Party: 153-91 (63%-37%)
  • Republican Party: 136-35 (80%-20%)

* Herbert also brags about Head Start, although there are substantial questions over its effectiveness. And if you want to look at the topic of education in a broader context one can't help but notice the decline in educational quality that has taken place that corresponds almost perfectly with an increased federal role and funding for the Department of Education.

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