Looking to secure a veneer of bipartisanship for their health care plans, Democrats have reached into the grave, exhuming the alleged endorsement of Richard Nixon. They claim that the health care legislation he proposed in 1971 and 1974 is a model for their own proposals today.
For instance, the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan wrote last month that President Obama’s plan “remains more moderate than those once proposed by Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.” A St. Louis Post Dispatch editorial at the end of January makes the same point, saying that the Obama plan relies more on free market mechanisms than Nixon’s proposal.

“Missing Richard Nixon” blared the headline atop an August 2009 Paul Krugman column in the New York Times. His pen pines for the good old days under Nixon: “As many people have pointed out, Nixon’s proposal for health care reform looks a lot like Democratic proposals today. . . . So what happened to the days when a Republican president could sound so nonideological, and offer such a reasonable proposal?” In fact, positive comparisons between the Democrats’ plans and those of Nixon were made even before Obama took office!

Thus far, no one has made reference to President Nixon’s staunch opposition to President Bill Clinton’s health care proposal in the early 1990s. In his tenth and final book Beyond Peace, which may have reflected a stronger commitment to limited government than at other points in his public life, Nixon issued a stinging critique of the Clinton plan. He began, “The 1994 debate over health care will be a crucial testing ground for our faith in freedom, which, if it means anything, must mean free markets and free choice.” Certainly, we face the same test today.

He continued, “The Clinton plan, all 1,342 impenetrable pages of it, is less a prescription for better health care than a blueprint for the takeover by the federal government of one seventh of our nation’s economy. If enacted, it would represent the ultimate revenge of the 1960s generation. The plan epitomizes the discredited notion that taking action against a problem requires introducing a massive network of new compulsions, bureaucracies, and government controls.” Elsewhere in the essay, he wrote, “For a thousand years, whenever price controls have been tried, they have failed.” Particularly when we speak of the public option and the House bill, we could say all the same things, only today it would mean nationalizing one sixth, not one seventh, of our nation’s economy.

President Nixon not only argued against the bureaucratic statism inherent in the Clinton plan – he also articulated a patient-centered vision similar to the one delivered by Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. Paul Ryan in recent days. “Any sensible reform of the nation’s health care system must start with the patient, not with the government. The most powerful force inflating health care costs has been a system of insurance that removes the patient’s own incentive to shop for value.” In other words, Nixon today would be much more likely to support health savings accounts than a public option. He also called for tort reform, a great emphasis on wellness and preventative care, and greater competition among insurance providers, all key elements of Republican alternatives.

Nixon sought to repudiate the suggestion, floating then as well, that his plans from the 1970s inspired the Democrats plan at present. Rebutting those who implied his support for the Clinton scheme from his time in office, Nixon wrote, “I most emphatically did not, and would not, endorse a wholesale federal takeover of the nation’s health care system.” Those equating the Obama plan with the Nixon plan are missing the fundamental difference between the two, something Nixon himself noted in his opposition to the 1994 plan: “Employers would have been required to help pay only for their own employees, not for all the indigent in the entire community.” He concluded that the Clinton plan “focuses less on improving health care delivery than it does on centralizing health care control. Our program was about health. The Clinton program gives every indication of being about power.” Could we not deliver the same indictment today against the Obama plan?

President Nixon spent his entire life fighting against the central planning and nationalized industries of the Soviets. Though not all his domestic policies reflected the same distrust of centralized bureaucracies, Republicans should not allow liberals to claim Nixon’s imprimatur on their health care scheme.

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a Washington Fellow of the National Review Institute.