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Thomas Frank: It's time for Obama to channel Harry Truman on health-care reform

[Thomas Frank is a historian and founder of The Baffler magazine.]

What is at stake in the debate over health care is more than the mere crafting of policy. The issue is now the identity of the Democratic Party.

By now we know that Democrats can bail out traditional Republican constituencies like Wall Street, but it remains to be seen whether they can enact a convincing version of their own signature issue, health-care reform.

At this point, it's fair to ask whether Democrats remember why health care is their issue in the first place. As health-care debates always have done, this one has pushed to the fore all the big questions about the rightful role of government, and too many Democrats have sought to avoid them with mushy appeals to consensus and bipartisanship. The war is on and if Democrats want to win they need to start fighting.

In the early years of the campaign for national health insurance, the battle lines were more clearly drawn. Back in the '40s, the issue was part of an "economic bill of rights," a grand Rooseveltian idea pushed by President Harry S. Truman.

Truman had a knack for populist phrasing. "In 1932 we were attacking the citadel of special privilege and greed," he declared in accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 1948. "We were fighting to drive the money changers from the temple. Today, in 1948, we are now the defenders of the stronghold of democracy and of equal opportunity, the haven of the ordinary people of this land and not of the favored classes or the powerful few."

The Democrats won that particular battle with "the powerful few" but, fighting among themselves as usual, failed to enact national health insurance. Health-care reform nonetheless remained their great cause, their high-voltage appeal to average voters, even those who otherwise saw them as a Harvard-and-Hollywood elite. And even during feeble reform campaigns like President Bill Clinton's 1993 attempt, the opposite half of the populist melodrama—in that case, the insurance industry—duly acted out its corporate bad-guy role.

This year things were supposed to be different. Democrats hold good-sized majorities in both houses of Congress and are led by an eloquent president who won an undeniable mandate last November. This time, the Democrats got the traditional opponents of health-care reform on board: "Ex-Foes of Health-Care Reform Emerge as Supporters" declared a headline in the Washington Post in March, over a story describing a friendly summit meeting between Mr. Obama and various health-care industry representatives.

This time the health-care fight was to be what official Washington loves: An act of cold consensus, not of hot idealism or Trumanesque populism...
Read entire article at WSJ