President Obama gets it. So did President Eisenhower half a century ago. When you are breaking a decades-long legislative logjam, you take what you can get so you can do better later.
Critics deplore the compromises Obama made on healthcare. And it’s true that the bill he signed last week doesn’t accomplish everything reform advocates had hoped for.
But give Obama credit for historical perspective. Covering the millions without health insurance is the civil rights issue of our time. And Obama walked a path analogous to the one Ike walked on civil rights in 1957.
Eisenhower proposed a strong bill that year. It seemed a fool’s errand — no civil rights legislation had been passed for 82 years. The proposal included protection for voting rights and authority for the attorney general to enforce an array of civil rights, including school desegregation.
The latter provision, known as “Part III,” quickly ran into political trouble. Southern Democrats at the time were the “party of no,” and they presented a united front. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia charged that Eisenhower’s bill was “cunningly designed” to authorize the attorney general “to destroy the system of separation of the races in the Southern states at the point of a bayonet.” That allegation was the 1950s equivalent of last year’s allegations by Republicans that healthcare reform would set up government-run “death panels.”
Finally, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson told Ike he had the votes to kill the bill if Part III remained in the legislation. Eisenhower dropped it to salvage voting rights.
Even that part of the legislation proved difficult. Southern senators gutted the remaining reform by persuading the Senate to require a jury trial for anyone prosecuted for violating voting rights, something that would make convictions extremely difficult. In private, Ike stormed: “Hell of a thing. Here are 18 Southern senators who can bamboozle (the) entire Senate.”
In public, Eisenhower lamented that “many fellow Americans will continue, in effect, to be disenfranchised.” Obama’s declaration while campaigning for passage of healthcare reform echoed that principle: “We can’t have a system that works better for the insurance companies than it does for the American people.”
Like Obama, Eisenhower was urged to give up or, in effect, “start over” on drafting a bill that would have wider acceptance. Civil rights leaders implored Eisenhower to veto any bill that didn’t make meaningful change.
Instead, Eisenhower took what one columnist called “a bold and perhaps dangerous gamble.” He prolonged the exhausting debate, holding firm and threatening to resubmit Part III if he didn’t get an agreement. The condition for avoiding that fight was removal of the jury trial roadblock to the protection of voting rights.
Obama took a not dissimilar path. He refused to start over and instead used the reconciliation process to push forward.
Ike won his gamble. LBJ accepted a workable compromise and, on Aug. 29, 1957, the Senate passed the final version of a bill that included significant new civil rights. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina conducted a 24-hour filibuster but gave up at 9:12 p.m.
Many liberals denigrated the 1957 act. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., however, supported it. He acknowledged that “many sincere leaders, both Negro and white, feel that no bill is better than the present bill.” But, King concluded, “I have come to the conclusion that the present bill is far better than no bill at all.”
The 1957 Civil Rights Act was a weak reed, but the logjam had been broken. The debate laid the groundwork for the landmark civil rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins called the 1957 Civil Rights Act “a small crumb from Congress.” But it was the first crumb in 82 years.
In early March, Obama posed a series of questions to the nation: “When is the right time? If not now, when? If not us, who?”
He was right to press forward. As Eisenhower demonstrated, the first order of business is to break the logjam. Then we can do something better.