In this morning’s Washington Post, Paul Begala, one of the architects of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and later a major White House advisor, contributes an op-ed. In it he argues that, although supporters of an expansive health-care policy (single-payer or otherwise) may be thoroughly dissatisfied with whatever legislation ultimately comes out of the Senate and to President Obama’s desk, they’d be well advised to bite their tongues and support it. As an example he cites the original Social Security legislation of the New Deal, which was quite limited in scope:
No self-respecting liberal today would support Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security Act. It excluded agricultural workers — a huge part of the economy in 1935, and one in which Latinos have traditionally worked. It excluded domestic workers, which included countless African Americans and immigrants. It did not cover the self-employed, or state and local government employees, or railroad employees, or federal employees or employees of nonprofits. It didn’t even cover the clergy. FDR’s Social Security Act did not have benefits for dependents or survivors. It did not have a cost-of-living increase. If you became disabled and couldn’t work, you got nothing from Social Security.
If that version of Social Security were introduced today, progressives like me would call it cramped, parsimonious, mean-spirited and even racist. Perhaps it was all those things. But it was also a start. And for 74 years we have built on that start. We added more people to the winner’s circle: farm workers and domestic workers and government workers. We extended benefits to the children of working men and women who died. We granted benefits to the disabled. We mandated annual cost-of-living adjustments. And today Social Security is the bedrock of our progressive vision of the common good.
The phrase “our progressive vision” may be taken by some to suggest that the expansion of Social Secuirty was strictly the doing of Democrats, in which case the Post’s Ezra Klein wishes to correct that misconception:
The original Social Security legislation wasn’t “perhaps” a “cramped, parsimonious, mean-spirited and even racist” program. It simply was those things. But it was something else, too. A start. Over the next 50 years, it was built upon. But not only by Democrats. Some of the largest advances came when Republicans saw political opportunity in strengthening the entitlement. Begala implies that progressives eventually added cost-of-living increases to Social Security. In fact, it was Richard Nixon who signed that bill. Similarly, whether you like the structure of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit or not, it was a massive expansion of an entitlement program, and it was proposed and signed by George W. Bush.