When the Social Security Act of 1935 was being drafted, liberals chided Franklin Roosevelt for the measure’s funding method, via payroll taxes, which did little to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.
Roosevelt responded that the critics misunderstood the purpose of the payroll taxes. “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and the unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”
Roosevelt was right, and eight decades later Social Security remains firmly anchored in the bedrock of the American political economy. Yet Roosevelt’s remark conveys a broader lesson, which conservatives are learning once again in their fight to repeal ObamaCare.
The lesson is this: However controversial an addition to the welfare state may be at birth, it soon develops constituencies that come to depend on it. If conservatives can’t manage to strangle a new program in the cradle, they’re stuck with it forever.
The broader history of Social Security reveals how this principle plays out. Signed into law in 1935, the program was a net drain on the resources of nearly every participant during its initial half-decade. They paid those payroll taxes but received nothing in return. Not until 1940 were the first Social Security pension checks mailed out.
During this period, Social Security was vulnerable. A Republican counterattack might have done it in. And Social Security would have been even more vulnerable had the presidential election of 1940 taken place under normal circumstances. A Republican likely would have succeeded Roosevelt and quite possibly taken an ax to Social Security.
But 1940 was far from normal. Europe and Asia were at war, and the threat to the United States allowed Roosevelt to try for a third term, which he won. He won a fourth term in 1944. And then Harry Truman surprised everyone by winning the 1948 election.
The result was that it wasn’t until 1953 that the Republicans regained the White House, with Dwight Eisenhower. By then, millions of Americans relied on their monthly Social Security checks and could hardly imagine living without them.
Eisenhower’s brother Edgar, an arch-conservative, urged Ike to move against Social Security and other parts of the New Deal.
Eisenhower rejected the advice as political suicide. “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” he said. Eisenhower acknowledged that a few Republicans still dreamed of a time before Social Security. But he paid them no heed: “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
The history of Medicare described a similar arc. Lambasted as “socialized medicine” as it struggled through Congress, this single-payer scheme for the elderly wouldn’t have won passage without a virtuoso performance by master manipulator Lyndon Johnson. Yet once elderly Americans realized what it meant not to have to fear dying for lack of medical treatment, Medicare became the most popular thing since . . . Social Security.
In the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009-10, the historically minded among both conservatives and liberals expected a similar unfolding in the event of passage. This is why Republicans fought so hard against it, and why the Obama administration was willing to accept a victory that included not a single Republican vote.
But an equally important vote came in the 2012 presidential election. Obama’s reelection ensured that the ACA would survive until 2017. By then the provisions of the law that touched nearly everyone — no discrimination on account of pre-existing conditions, no cap on payments, no copays for preventive care — would become part of the landscape of American life, and they would be very difficult to dislodge. Add in the support of the millions of people with first-time access to health insurance, and the resistance to repeal would be nearly overwhelming — as the Republicans are discovering now.
Many conservatives still think ObamaCare is a bad idea, its popularity notwithstanding. Some think the same thing about Social Security and Medicare. In their honest moments, they might argue that one purpose of conservatism is to protect Americans from themselves. People are drawn to all sorts of things that aren’t good for them. We have laws against heroin; why not against ObamaCare?
But in a democracy it’s a tough sell to say that people are too foolish or weak to do what’s best for them. Voters expect to be flattered, not chided.
This is what drives conservatives crazy. The field of play in a democracy is tilted against them. Roosevelt knew this; Johnson knew this; Obama knew this.
And Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOPINION | What FDR could have told Trump about ObamaCare OPINION | ‘Mooch’ and the Midwest: He is every Wall Street stereotype, but the base will love it Chelsea Handler: Trump ‘scares the sh-t out of me’ MORE is finding it out.
H.W. Brands is a presidential historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of various books on American history, including. “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Follow him on Twitter @hwbrands.
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