The Myth of Theodore Roosevelt and Health Care Reform

Obamacare.  Is there a word in the English language that splits Americans so fiercely?  Progressive, maybe.  In the 1990s, “liberal” was the derogatory word of choice, but now, thanks largely to Glenn Beck, “progressive” has joined the pantheon of “fascist,” “communist,” and “politician” as a dirty words.  And the grand-daddy of all progressives, Theodore Roosevelt, has been the particular focus of Beck’s wrath.  Once the darling of the Republican Party, Roosevelt’s reform-minded spirit now riles up the neo-populist base with which the Tea Party works.

To make matters worse for old TR, President Obama briefly flirted with comparing himself to the famous reformer during the 2012 Presidential Election.  Since 2009, Democrats have tried–unsuccessfully–to portray Obamacare as an old Progressive Party ideal promoted by Teddy Roosevelt himself. Political pundits and news makers felt that drawing this connection would add legitimacy to a deeply controversial proposal.  In fact, the idea goes back even further.  Dr. Beatrix Hoffman at the NIH wrote an article in 2003 entitled “Health Care Reform and Social Movements in the United States” which highlighted the Progressive Party’s (a.k.a. the Bull Moose Party) 1912 platform’s mention of some kind of insurance for protecting health and home.  President Obama has made the comparison several times in his speeches, too.  But it never became a mainstream part of his message.

The reality is somewhat fuzzier.  Roosevelt never called for health care reform in the sense of Obamacare.  The Progressive Party did, but not really until 1915, after Roosevelt had semi-retired from politics.  In 1912, the mention of healthcare insurance wasn’t really that at all, but instead a mention for federally-backed insurance for workers.  Here is the entire plank:

We favor the union of all the existing agencies of the Federal Government dealing with the public health into a single national health service without discrimination against or for any one set of therapeutic methods, school of medicine, or school of healing with such additional powers as may be necessary to enable it to perform efficiently such duties in the protection of the public from preventable diseases as may be properly undertaken by the Federal authorities, including the executing of existing laws regarding pure food, quarantine and cognate subjects, the promotion of vital statistics and the extension of the registration area of such statistics, and co-operation with the health activities of the various States and cities of the Nation.

That’s the Health plank.  It focuses on the unification under a single organization all of the health interests, but focuses primarily on regulation food safety and record-keeping.

The other plank that mentions health is this:

The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use;

That’s in the segment about labor safety.  Which means some kind of insurance program for those who work and might get sick or injured.  Sounds more like social security or disability than the Affordable Care Act.

On top of this, Obamacare is not an insurance program.  It is a set of reforms that change the way medical data is collected, how healthcare is delivered, but it has no cost controls, and so far it seems as if costs will be going up for almost everyone.  There is no insurance in the sense of unemployment or social security.  All it does is require most Americans to have insurance, paying out of their pocket with some degree of subsidy further down the line.

The issue here is not Obamacare, however, as I don’t want to get overly political one way or the other. My point is to highlight yet another example of how history is distorted for the purposes of politicians on the left and the right.  We can learn a lot from history, but there are limits.  Theodore Roosevelt lived in a very different world in some ways.  While I can’t say he would oppose Obamacare (that would be manipulating history, too) we also cannot say he would support it in its present form.

Similarly it’s ridiculous for critics like Glenn Beck to assail him.  Sure, Roosevelt had some “radical” ideas, but he abhorred socialists and others he deemed as rabble-rousers, he had very conservative ideas about the family and society.  Certainly Beck can find at least enough to agree with Teddy Roosevelt on as he does to disagree with.

All you history-lovers out there, you’re probably big politics junkies like me.  Which means you can get passionate and riled up about what you believe.  Just be careful not to misuse history in your pursuits.  We can always look upon historical events with new perspectives, new evidence and new interpretations, but be careful you are not carelessly misconstruing what you learn for your own political ends.


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