The Social Security Lesson: A Flawed Healthcare Reform Is Better Than None at All

Progressives should prefer a flawed healthcare reform law over a perfect bill that never passes.

By + More

A consensus in American politics about Social Security developed. A Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, endorsed Social Security and agreed to amendments that extended benefits to more than 10 million additional workers. When Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater proposed turning Social Security into a voluntary program in his 1964 campaign, Lyndon Johnson crushed him on Election Day. And by 1983, Republican President Ronald Reagan, who had once sided with Goldwater, enacted a bipartisan plan that ultimately shored up the Social Security system for generations to come. Meantime, on the left, Social Security became a sacrosanct social reform—a thriving model of legislative action that made a meaningful difference for virtually all American families. Perhaps a similar consensus will one day emerge around a healthcare reform bill.

Social Security enshrined ideas ranging from unemployment compensation and aid to dependent children to the concept of social insurance for the elderly and other Americans as new social rights. It seems safe to assume that the current liberal opposition to a reform plan without a "public option" will diminish, provided final legislation covers all Americans. So it's conceivable that healthcare reform will establish the principle of universal healthcare coverage as a right for all Americans, also for the first time, after decades of struggle.

It's hard to exaggerate how significant such a development would be. While progressives understandably criticized Social Security in 1935 as flawed, they came to regard it as possibly the single greatest achievement of liberalism in the middle of the 20th century. Progressives one day may point to Obama's healthcare reform legislation—regardless of the contentious provisions under debate today—and cite it as the most important progressive action of the early 21st century.

  • Check out our political cartoons.
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our new digital magazine.