Happy Birthday, Medicare (Or: How Wrong Reagan Was)

[ Posted Thursday, July 30th, 2015 – 16:48 UTC ]

Medicare turned 50 years old today. Only 15 more years, and it'll be eligible for itself!

OK, that was a pretty weak attempt at humor, I fully admit. This week also marks the official kickoff to the annual political "Silly Season," where Congress scarpers off for a month at the beach and political reporters desperately scramble to find something to talk about. This year, of course, we're not going to have that problem, because of the entertaining 2016 presidential race.

But I digress. Although this article's title doesn't admit it, today is mostly going to be a partial re-run of an older column. Because, right at the height of the frenzy that was the Obamacare congressional debate, I came across an extraordinary bit of political history: Ronald Reagan's entry into the political world. Ranting and raving about the evils of Medicare to the wives of doctors. Because these were earlier times, this was not done through YouTube, a blog, or even a newspaper. It was done instead through the magic of the long-playing record (for younger readers, these were flat plastic disks that spun around and around and emitted sounds -- pretty magical indeed!).

My article originally ran in 2009, at the height of the Obamacare scaremongering. The public option (or, more correctly, the "public option option") was still alive in the halls of Congress, which led to all sorts of dire predictions from the conservatives. I noted their similarity with Reagan's equally-dire predictions from 1961, about how Medicare would kill every Americans' freedom. No, really.

So, in honor of Medicare turning 50 years old today, I thought traipsing through Ronald Reagan's doom-filled scaremongering was worth doing once again. Nattering nabobs of negativism have always been with us. Most of the time they're laughably wrong, when viewed through the lens of history.

Another moral of this story is, sadly: politicians really never pay a price for predicting the sky will fall when the sky does not actually fall. Ronald Reagan, from such humble red-baiting conspiracy-theory ranting, went on to become America's president, after all. And here's where his career began. So sit back, raise a toast to Medicare's continuing success, and read the dire future people were being warned about before it passed Congress and was signed into law, 50 years ago today.

[Note: The article below is the entire "talking points" section of "Friday Talking Points [83]". I apologize because I haven't re-checked the links to see if they're still working, but if they still are, take the 10 minutes and listen to the audio of Reagan's address in full -- it's worth hearing from Ronnie's lips.]


Originally published June 6, 2009

A while back, a valuable piece of "opposition research" was leaked from the GOP's anti-healthcare-reform camp, in the form of a document written by Frank Luntz (see FTP 76).

But now there's an even more recent release of another GOP opinion survey/talking points list, which Democrats fighting for healthcare would do well to study.

Normally, this would provide plenty of fodder for our own talking points. But this week I'm going to do something a little different instead. Because I'd like to highlight the fact that virtually every argument (and then some) the Republicans are making against "socialized medicine" is exactly the same as the arguments they made forty-eight years ago. By none other than Ronald Reagan, who cut an album at the behest of the American Medical Association, in what turned out to be his initial foray into the world of politics.

The album, with the catchy title "Ronald Reagan speaks out against Socialized Medicine," was an early example of what is today called "astroturf" -- a fake grassroots effort bankrolled by a deep-pocket lobbying group. The album was sent to "Woman's [sic] Auxiliaries" of the AMA (doctors' wives -- this was 1961, after all), in an effort called "Operation Coffeecup." The doctors' wives were supposed to brew up a pot of coffee and call all their friends over to listen to the Reagan record, which exhorted them all to write to their members of Congress in opposition to what became known as Medicare. This is, once again, how Reagan got started in politics. The entire story (in exhaustive detail) is a fascinating one.

This album got a little attention last year when Sarah Palin quoted from it (or tried to, she just had to add the odd "back in the day" to Reagan's words, being Sarah Palin) during the Vice Presidential Debate. You can watch a "mashup" of Palin and Reagan to hear the differences.

But to truly bask in the red-baiting glory that was the early 1960s, you really need to listen to all ten minutes of Reagan speaking.

Because he paints a pretty horrific picture of the future of America under Medicare. A future, it should be noted, that simply has not come to pass. Which uses exactly the same threats that are being used against the "public plan" option today by its opponents -- essentially that private medicine will disappear, and that all we will be left with is socialized medicine. Well, OK, to be fair, using the word "socialism" back then had more of a punch to it, which led Reagan to use scare tactics which would be laughable today, but his main script is still in use, if a bit toned down for the modern audience.

So, for today's talking points, I offer up Ronald Reagan from 1961. To turn any of these into a Democratic talking point for use today, all you have to do is preface each with a statement like "You know, in 1961 Ronald Reagan said the following about the future of America under Medicare..." or "The last time America improved its healthcare system by enacting Medicare, the same scare tactics were used by opponents. I'd like to quote what Ronald Reagan had to say about what Medicare would do to America, and you can compare these scare tactics to the ones being used today..." or similar introductions. Either that, or read a Reagan quote, and then ask in astonishment: "Has this come to pass? No? Then why should we listen to you this time?"

Without further ado, we turn the entire rest of the talking points over to none other than Ronald Reagan, from "Ronald Reagan speaks out against Socialized Medicine."


   It's all a socialist plot

"Now back in 1927 an American socialist, Norman Thomas, six times candidate for president on the Socialist Party ticket, said the American people would never vote for socialism. But he said under the name of liberalism the American people would adopt every fragment of the socialist program."


   Beware the humanitarians!

"But at the moment I'd like to talk about another way because this threat is with us and at the moment is more imminent. One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It's very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project."


   OK, Ronnie, why don't we hold a vote today?

"Now, the American people, if you put it to them about socialized medicine and gave them a chance to choose, would unhesitatingly vote against it."


   Those wily socialists...

"Now what reason could the other people have for backing a bill which says we insist on compulsory health insurance for senior citizens on a basis of age alone regardless of whether they are worth millions of dollars, whether they have an income, whether they're protected by their own insurance, whether they have savings. I think we could be excused for believing that... this was simply an excuse to bring about what they wanted all the time: socialized medicine."


   Government will dictate to doctors

"The doctor begins to lose freedom.... First you decide that the doctor can have so many patients. They are equally divided among the various doctors by the government. But then doctors aren't equally divided geographically. So a doctor decides he wants to practice in one town and the government has to say to him, you can't live in that town. They already have enough doctors. You have to go someplace else. And from here it's only a short step to dictating where he will go."


   Government will dictate to YOUR STRAPPING YOUNG SONS!!

"All of us can see what happens once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man's working place and his working methods, determine his employment. From here it's a short step to all the rest of socialism, to determining his pay. And pretty soon your son won't decide, when he's in school, where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do."


   Oh, the humanity! Freedom dies in America!!

"Write those letters now, call your friends and tell them to write. If you don't, this program, I promise you, will pass just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow. And behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until, one day, as Norman Thomas said, we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don't do this and if I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free."

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Happy Birthday, Medicare (Or: How Wrong Reagan Was)”

  1. [1] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    “Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that. And it’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want to be cut.” - The Donald speaking truth to power

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The link to the Reagan recording still works, but the sound quality is pretty bad. The original wax cylinder recording must be worth a small fortune, even more if it's still in the original storage tube with the liner notes. As they say on Antiques Road Show, "what you have here is an American Treasure."

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Would you agree that simply being wrong does not a bad President make??


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