United States Senate
July 19, 2000
Senator Paul Wellstone:
When I was first elected to the Senate and Bill Clinton was elected
president two years later, I believed the political winds and tides were
aligned for a decade of progressive change for America. I thought I had been
elected at just the right time to be a part of this change. When President
Clinton, in his State of the Union speech, announced he would veto any
health care legislation that did not provide universal coverage, that every
citizen must be covered, I jumped to my feet and cheered. This was why I
came to Washington, to make this kind of change, and this was a fight I
thought we could win.
But I had some quick learning to do. When I spoke about my interest in a
"single-payer" health care plan, similar to the Canadian system where
doctors and hospitals remain in the private sector, but where there is just
one insurer or payer, I was told by a senior colleague that my plan might be
the best proposal. "But it does not have a chance. The insurance industry
hates it and it will go nowhere. It is just not realistic."
I was completely disillusioned. I could not accept then, and I do not accept
now, the proposition that even before the American people have the
opportunity to be informed or included, a good proposal is "dead on arrival"
because the insurance industry opposes it. That isn't supposed to happen in
a representative democracy!
In spite of the advice, I did introduce the single payer plan with Jim
McDermott, a congressman and physician from the state of Washington. I
thought first you start with the most desirable, and later on in the process
you'll find out what is politically feasible. I refused to admit defeat
before we had even begun to fight. And I was hoping that our legislation
would pull the debate in a more progressive direction.
What happened was just the opposite. The trillion dollar health care
industry, led by the insurance companies, went on the attack, not against
our plan which "wasn't realistic" but against the President's plan which
"was". "Harry and Louise" ads cried out against the horrors of "government
medicine." Intensive and expensive lobbying efforts expounded on the same
Media coverage, which should have been about the nuts and bolts of different
proposals shifted now to focus on strategy rather than substance and head
counts rather than hard information. So ordinary citizens no longer had a
source of knowledge to form opinions and inform their elected leaders.
But the problems were not limited to the insurance lobby and the media. The
only way we could have beaten the health care industry would have been with
dramatic and effective citizen politics. It never happened. Progressives
didn't organize a constituency to fight for health care reform, and the
Administration didn't have the political will to stand up to powerful
interests and therefore never asked the American people to take on this
fight. They tried to win with "inside politics," cutting deals and making
compromises with different economic interests.
Comment: Paul... We failed you, and we failed America. But we won't let it
happen again. This time we'll win this fight, not just for you, but for all
of America. Thank you for lighting the beacon. Now we'll do our part.
E. Richard Brown, PhD, Director, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research:
Thank you, Don, for sending out Paul Wellstone's speech on universal coverage from just two years ago. Paul and Sheila were such courageous people who selflessly fought for universal coverage, health insurance parity for mental illness, and social justice in all its forms. They inspired so many of us to persist even when we felt discouraged.
Marianne and I were very close friends with Paul and Sheila and we will miss them deeply. We spent the last weekend of September with them in Minnesota, at the height of Paul's reelection campaign. Their remarkable personal qualities connected them to thousands of people in Minnesota. Whether it was his rousing speech to the statewide convention of the public employees union, ommunicating one-on-one through translation into sign with participants at a small conference of the deaf, speaking of the accomplishments of advocacy at the opening of a residential treatment home for young people with eating disorders, encouraging leaders of the Twin Cities' Somali immigrant community, or conversing in the living rooms of ordinary working people, Paul was inspiring his constituents to political action to improve the conditions of their lives. The response to Paul was
the same in all these settings. People thanked him for his support that helped their own struggle for social justice, for particular things he had done to help them personally, or simply for being their voice and crusader in the Senate. The genuine love that people we encountered in living rooms and on the street obviously felt for him was something we have not seen in our own state.
We all feel this loss together. The nation will mourn our loss of Paul's courageous and eloquent voice and his steadfast actions. But he would have told us that we need to struggle even harder and more effectively. He believed in "effective citizen politics" which he taught and practiced for two decades as a college professor/community organizer in Minnesota before the people of his state sent him to the Senate. He believed in us or he would not have spent his life inspiring us, encouraging us, and organizing us. He would expect us to believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish together.