09/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Senator Baucus: "Uniquely American" Is Not an Answer

A tried-and-true political tactic in this country to scuttle progressive progress is to explicitly or implicitly tar one's opponent as "un-American." One can either do it in the darkest of ways -- cue Sen. Joe McCarthy. Or, one can do it in a more subtle way by accusing one's opponents of perhaps one of the worst transgressions -- listening to another country and, thereby, rejecting the "American" way. Consider, then, Sen. Max Baucus' comments, which I respectfully suggest, are ill-informed and lack the judiciousness we should expect from our elected leaders.

Yesterday, Sen. Baucus had this to say about the health care debate:

"There are no enemies and villains here," Mr. Baucus said. "Most Americans want to reform our system. Most companies, industries, want to reform the system because they know we have a lousy system. We have to work together to find out a better solution, which is still a uniquely American solution, which is public and private. We're not, you know, Great Britain. We're not Canada. We're not Netherlands. We're America."[emphasis added]

There are lots of things to be proud of about our country -- I immediately think of the work that unions do, for example, every day to make sure millions of Americans have a decent standard of living, despite the "uniquely American," "free market" system that has done everything possible for the past three decades to deny workers the fruits of their hard labor.

Sen. Baucus, yes, we are America -- and, according to the World Health Organization, our health care system ranks lower than Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands, not to mention Spain, Greece, Ireland and that economic powerhouse, Malta.

It is no shame to say that our country doesn't always have the right answer, makes mistakes (sometimes, deeply disturbing ones) and can actually learn from others around the world. Arrogance and stubbornness gave us the Iraq War and a whole host of disastrous interventions that were, indeed, "uniquely American." Most of those interventions were opposed by many countries around the world. We often ignored that disagreement -- at a cost of human lives that easily totals in the millions, not to mention the vast waste of economic resources.

Our "uniquely American" way of doing business, I would argue, has created the greatest divide between rich and poor in one hundred years. Our "uniquely American" way of running our corporate affairs cleared the way for a systematic legal looting of companies by a handful of executives who left very little for the millions of people who actually make companies run.

Sen. Baucus, it appears to me that your "uniquely American" solution for the health care crisis envisions keeping the insurance's strong grip on the future health of our citizens. That "uniquely American" solution has guaranteed -- guaranteed -- that more of the people of the country will be sick, will die unnecessarily or, at best, will be economically ruined. For what? For the "uniquely American" solution that profits should trump the welfare of the people.

Sen. Baucus, I would respectfully argue that your solution is, in fact, not "uniquely American." In fact, it is an ugly mutation of what makes many of us proud to be Americans. I think many Americans swell with pride at the cry of the American rebels that the people be freed from the clutches of a King and deserved, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." That was a "uniquely American" plea (okay, actually, influenced by democratic thinkers that were not American...but let's leave that aside for now).

But, your own desire to preserve a "uniquely American" solution for the health care of our people makes a mockery of the notion of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." What industry has done more to deny our citizen the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Why do you want to celebrate a "uniquely American" solution that rewards an industry that has taken away Life (by denying people care), Liberty (by, at the very least, making people remain at jobs simply because they cannot get health care elsewhere) and the Pursuit of Happiness (the bankrupting of millions of people has cut off, for many, the road to pleasure and peace of mind, sometimes for the rest of their lives).

Sen. Baucus, many of us think of Medicare as "uniquely America"--one of the most successful programs in the history of the country that, without a doubt, saved millions of our seniors from poverty and made sure that people had health care. We are proud of a country that takes care of its elderly--and asks the rest of us to pay fair dues in our society to pay for that care for others. We think "uniquely American" does not equal "free market" when the "free market" profits at the expense of the welfare of the people.

Sen. Baucus, this isn't about "enemies" and "villains." It is, however, about right and wrong.