The Compromises of FDR and LBJ

You might've read or overheard quite a few remarks about how the president ought to be more like FDR or LBJ when it comes to being tough and unflinching in the face of healthcare reform opposition.

History tells a slightly different story about these presidents, of course. While I strongly disagree with Paul Begala's central theme that the public option is expendable (it's mandatory), he makes a solid point about FDR and "compromise." Basically, Social Security was hardly what we would consider to be "robust":

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.

That bastard! FDR sold out farmers, maids, families, priests and even fellow victims of disabilities!

In terms of LBJ on healthcare reform, yes, he passed Medicare. But the initial goal, as outlined by his predecessors Truman and Kennedy, was much broader. Similar to the comprehensive reform we're seeking now. But he settled for Medicare. He compromised. The idea that LBJ sought Medicare alone and won it without compromising is nothing shy of revisionist.

Back to Begala. He's right in terms of the occasional political necessity of compromise. But he drops the ball on what the compromise should be in this case. President Obama has already compromised by rejecting single-payer. The public option is absolutely the "compromise" equivalent of LBJ's Medicare. The public option is the "compromise" equivalent of FDR's Social Security bill. So history demands that the president stand firm here. With the public option.

Single-payer supporters should also embrace the magnitude and importance of a public option victory. In the continuum of healthcare accomplishments, it would rank side-by-side with FDR's Social Security and LBJ's Medicare. Nothing less. It's just that huge.

Nevertheless, the idea that FDR and LBJ were mighty testostolibs who never compromised on healthcare is just silly.