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218 + 60 + 1

By Brian Morton | Posted 3/31/2010

Despite all the flaws in the health-care bill signed by President Obama last week, its passage is still a positive development for both liberals and conservatives for quite a number of reasons.

Granted, it's not single-payer. Seventeen years ago Bill and Hillary Clinton tried to push through a health-care bill, and one of the reasons it went down to defeat was the fracture of the coalition behind it--partially over the desire to have single-payer. (The biggest problem was Hillary Clinton's determination to come up with a bill in secret, which doomed the entire effort.)

Even though it appeared that President Obama waited far too long to put the full weight of his office behind health-care reform, it turns out that his opposition failed to come up with a second wind after believing its "summer of anger" had killed it. And in the end, what got passed is still the most progressive legislation signed by a president in more than 40 years. Which makes Vice President Biden correct: It is a big fucking deal.

One of the reasons conservatives' heads were exploding in the final days before full passage was that they could see which way the wind was blowing. Ever since Reagan, the American conservative movement has been tilting the scale of tax breaks and benefits toward big business and the wealthy. Aside from Clinton's deficit-reduction package in 1993--another time where you could hear the hysteria in the voices on the right--nearly everything the government has done since 1980 has been to increase inequality.

When Reagan took office, the top marginal tax bracket was 70 percent for income above $215,400 for a married couple filing jointly, and $161,300 for a head of household. By the time he left office, it was 28 percent for incomes above $149,250 for the married couple and $123,790 for a head of household. And despite the fact that Reagan's budget director David Stockman acknowledged to writer William Greider in The Atlantic in 1981 that Reagan's tax cuts were "a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," the top tax rate has never since exceeded 39.6 percent.

So for almost 30 years, we have been laboring under the principle set forth under Reagan that Americans prosper most when the game is rigged to favor the prosperous.A 

In 1993, Bill Clinton tried to change that, by raising the top rate to almost 40 percent, and the Republicans and their allies screamed bloody murder. Former congresswoman Marjorie Margolies (then Margolies-Mezvinsky) last week wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post recalling the agonizing vote over Clinton's deficit-reduction bill, and the way she was treated by Republicans afterward.

Margolies was the representative for a district outside of Philadelphia that went for George H.W. Bush, but had elected her in the slimmest of margins. In last week's Post, she recalled, "I still remember how, after I voted, Bob Walker jumped up and down on the House floor, yelling 'Bye-bye, Marjorie!' I thought, first, that he was probably right. Then, that I would expect better behavior from my kids, much less a member of Congress. And then, that he was a remarkable jumper."

In the 30 years since Reagan, the income and benefits accorded the wealthy have skyrocketed while their tax rates have dropped more than for middle class and poor taxpayers. The ratio of salary inequality between the rich and the poor has blown past the obscene ratio of the Gilded Age to reach new heights. Reagan was the first president to introduce massive deficits, and until Clinton raised the top rate, no president in the years between had even submitted a balanced budget. After the Bush "Great Recession," it may be quite a few years before it happens again.

But at least under Obama, the scales are finally beginning to tilt in the other direction. The share of Americans with some form of health insurance has been shrinking since Richard Nixon was president, and never more so than in the last five years. Social insurance is the attempt to spread the costs of misfortune across the spectrum, hence the term "safety net." Here's what Republicans and conservatives were fighting against: In 10 years from now, 95 percent of Americans are projected to be covered by health insurance.

Here in 2010, conservatives are screaming even louder that the America they've come to know since Reagan is no more. And frankly, more's the better for it.

Already many conservatives are saying that they'll be running this fall on a campaign to repeal the law. Do the math: To repeal Obamacare, they'll need 218 votes in the House, 60 in the Senate, and a president in the White House. As former George Bush speechwriter David Frum said, "Legislative majorities come and go. This health care bill is forever."

That's not a bad thing.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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