The article about the health-care victory's potential costs for Democratic politicians quoted former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as saying that President Obama and congressional Democrats "will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" and described that statement as referring to the passage of civil rights legislation under President Johnson. Gingrich said he was referring not to the civil rights legislation but to Johnson overreaching on his management of the economy, the Vietnam War and the cultural divisions that emerged partly because of that war. Gingrich said Johnson erred on civil rights by supporting busing to integrate schools and by failing to take a firmer stance against racial violence in urban areas.
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The Take: Historic win or not, Democrats could pay a price
Social Security passed the House in 1935 by 372 to 77. On that vote, 77 Republicans joined the majority and 18 Republicans opposed it. In the Senate, the vote was 77 to 6, with five of 19 Republicans in opposition.
At the time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambitions were even larger. Historian David Kennedy, a scholar of the New Deal era, said Roosevelt originally included universal health care as part of the Social Security legislation but pulled out those provisions before sending the bill to Capitol Hill.
"He thought it was such a significant political liability it could sink the whole bill," Kennedy said.
Today, Republicans and Democrats agree on the potential significance of what could happen over the next week in Washington. Where they disagree is on the question of whether it is necessary or wise to do it.
Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean has often been at odds with the White House over the health-care bill, but he said the current version is worthy of support as a significant first step toward real reform and because it could help Democrats politically. "Our team's got to win this one, and if they do I think they'll be rewarded. . . . A 'yes' vote hurts Democrats much less as a party than a 'no' vote," he said.
But former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill "the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times," Gingrich said: "They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
No one doubts that Johnson was right to push for those civil rights measures. And he was well aware of the potential damage they would do to a Democratic Party that was then a coalition including whites and African Americans, liberals from the North and conservative segregationists from the South.
Those battles over civil rights set off a political realignment that played out over decades and led eventually to a Republican domination of the South that continues to this day.
Still, the health-care battle has divided the country in ways that the Medicare debate of the 1960s did not. One reason is that partisanship and political polarization are measurably worse today. Another factor is that trust in government is far lower than in the 1960s. Finally, the political parties are far more homogenous, particularly the Republican Party, whose members decidedly identify themselves as conservative or very conservative.
Democrats are keenly aware of the risks ahead, which is why it has been so difficult for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to round up the votes. Many Democrats, recalling the debacle after their failure on health care in 1994, think that another failure will be equally costly. Others say there will be a price to be paid no matter what happens.
"The political consequences of 1994 took a full decade for the D Party to undo and reverse," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House. "If the political consequences of this effort turn out to be as long-lasting as 1994, that would be a very significant price that will have to be weighed in the historical balance."
But will Republicans regret their unanimous opposition? Historian Kennedy sees dangers for the GOP if a reformed health- care system turns out to be as popular as Social Security and Medicare.
"They confer real benefits on people that are palpable, and people believe in them," he said of those two programs. "What the political calculus is [among Republicans] that lets this come through a strictly Democratic proposal is a pretty high-stakes gamble."
Vin Weber, a former Republican House member from Minnesota, disagrees. He said this measure is different, not only because it has widened the ideological chasm in the country but also because the costs and benefits will fall unequally on different groups of people over the years.
"Medicare and Social Security immediately created a large group of beneficiaries who immediately understood what they were getting," he said. "That's not the case here."
Such differing interpretations guarantee that even if the bills pass, the fight over health care will continue long afterward. "The division we now have is not going to disappear," Dallek said. "It's going to be a continuing part of the national debate. This legislation is going to play out over the next four or five or six years."
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.