It seems prudent to put our current political trajectory into a broader historical context, but how can we do this considering that we are in the midst of such an unusual political atmosphere? Indeed, the 2016 election cycle has demonstrated that we need to revisit our conventional mores and standards for Presidential elections. In anticipating the issue more likely to unite than divide in 2020, history does help us here. More specifically, Reagan can give us some insights into how to use an issue to coalesce a disparate base.
Official Portrait of Ronald Reagan, Wikipedia.org
In 1979 when Ronald Reagan, a west-coast Republican, announced his candidacy for the office of the President of the United States, he knew that in order to succeed he would need to galvanize support from conservatives in both the North and the South. While “stagflation” of the 1970’s economy was a central theme in the campaign cycle, Reagan’s campaign proved shrewd enough to realize that translating a nebulous, unwieldy topic like the economy was not their ticket to a win. He needed a short-hand issue that was viewed as “black and white” in order to galvanize support. Reagan was able to coalesce the right around, you guessed it: abortion. The Catholic population in the north and Evangelicals from the south – two distinctly separate groups that we now collectively consider the “religious right” were brought together by Reagan and his use of this issue.
To understand how he rode this topic into an overwhelming victory, we again look at the political zeitgeist of the late 1970s. Abortion was not a new topic to the American people. At the time of the American Revolution abortion was legal in most colonies. Please pause for a moment to consider this, and evaluate that fact against our current state of affairs – women had more legal rights of access to abortion in the 1700s than they do now in some states. Verily, abortions were legal for longer gestational time frames than they are now – a woman could legally have an abortion until “quickening” which generally occurred in the fourth or fifth month. Compare that with today’s legislation – the Ohio House of Representatives just recently passed a law criminalizing abortions as early as just six weeks into pregnancy.
So, given the country’s long-running history with abortion, a topic that existed for all presidencies that came before Reagan’s, how was Reagan able to rile up his base enough to make this election map a reality?
1980 Presidential Election Results, Wikimedia Commons.
Well, we must pause to consider that the Roe v. Wade ruling was issued just six years before Reagan announced his candidacy. The national conversation about abortion was alive and well thanks to the additional attention the ruling gave to the issue. Reagan simply stepped into that limelight and allied himself with those that had been arguing the topic from pulpits – whether they be situated in cathedrals or country churches.
Applying Reagan’s Tactic to 2020
More time separates us today from the passage of the ACA in 2010 than separated Reagan from the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, but healthcare remains one of the most oft-discussed topics in our campaign discourse. This is our present-day limelight, and we need a candidate that looks great bathed in that glaring spotlight.
We live in a time where a healthcare diagnosis can turn a man into a mendicant. Indeed, one in three GoFundMe campaigns is healthcare-related. Considering that GoFundMe has helped raise $5 billion dollars, this is no small measure – and we are left to the mercy of the generosity of our kith, kin, and strangers to help us through some of the most difficult times. It is for that reason that the power of universal healthcare needs to be harnessed – in general, we are all at risk, regardless of party affiliation or geographical location.
And yet we are left with how to translate this wide-spread issue into it’s simplest “yes” or “no” form for voters, much like Reagan was able to do for abortion. Would a topic like single-payer healthcare prove as complicated and vast a topic as the economy? As Donald Trump famously stated, “nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” He was correct on two words alone in that sentence – healthcare IS complicated. We know this (and we all knew it, seemingly before he did).
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But that doesn’t mean that a complicated issue can’t be discussed in simplistic terms. The problem with Democratic candidates is that they seem to want to explain how to get things done as if to prove that they have given proper due diligence to the viability of their proposals. While this is a responsibility of any elected official I’d posit that the due diligence, planning, and think-tanking is a behind the scenes affair; it is the sausage making, if you will.
We need candidates that deliver lucid, bold statements, rather than presenting complicated plans that take a minute and a half to begin to explain, footnoted with a reference to a website and a direction to voters to “learn more.” This is wrong. Most. Voters. Don’t. Care. They don’t want to see how the sausage is made, and they don’t care how something will work, they just care that it gets done. Bill Clinton capitalized on this reductive concept by doing what Reagan could not – turning the economy into a sound bite with his pithy, “it’s the economy, stupid” line that ultimately landed him in the White House.
So, in keeping with that idea, we need a candidate that is brave enough to state what a majority of Americans now believe – that healthcare is a basic right. Full stop. No caveats. No complex plans to incrementally bolster the powers of the ACA. Any primary candidate bold enough to make this statement will be the one to win, mark my words.* This is how a candidate moves the complex discussion about healthcare to an “agree” or “disagree” standpoint. Research shows that 70% of Americans already seem to agree, and it is these voters we care about courting.
There absolutely are massive considerations to resolve, i.e. how to contend with the leviathan insurance companies lobbying on behalf of their own interests, or how to alleviate the impact to employees in the private insurance field. There are many valid concerns, but to sort through them in the public eye on a debate stage just serves to muddy the waters when right now voters are looking for clarity. Our candidates employ brain trusts (or as Donald puts it, “the best people”) to help address these complex ideas, the successful 2020 candidate’s job is simply to deliver to us the finished package, the bratwurst at the ballgame, to complete the sausage analogy.
*Should this prove untrue, I will happily eat my words in the form of “Tara was wrong” in frosting atop a chocolate cake. I will also wash my defeat cake down with a glass of fine whiskey to assuage my disappointment that we went another presidential election cycle without furthering the agenda of universal healthcare.