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Memo to Members of Congress: Don't Be on the Wrong Side of History

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Today it would be hard to find one member of Congress who openly advocates the abolition of Medicare or Social Security. It's true that during the Bush Presidency, right-wing Republicans tried to weaken, dilute and privatize both. But their proposals were always passed off as attempts to "strengthen" these programs that have become two of the most popular and widely respected institutions of government.

Of course it wasn't always so. Both Social Security and Medicare were incredibly controversial when they were passed - the first in 1937 and the second in 1964. In fact, their opponents sounded very much like today's Republicans as they denounced them for being "big government takeovers" - or, in the case of Medicare, "socialized medicine."

But it wasn't long after they were enacted that Social Security and Medicare became "third rails" in American politics. Former Senator Bob Dole once made a speech where he said: "I was there, fighting against Medicare." The TV spot reprising that speech during his 1996 campaign against Bill Clinton helped seal Dole's defeat.

The view shared by most Americans - and all senior citizens - was summed up in the slogan for the 2005 campaign to defeat Bush's privatization program: "Hands off my Social Security."

No one brags that their father or grandfather lead the fight to oppose Social Security or Medicare - any more than they brag that their forbearer lead the fight against civil rights. But of course in the 1960's, civil rights did not have the universal acclaim it has today.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had many detractors who thought his agitation for justice was downright subversive. Others thought that he wanted to move too fast. That extended to the Pastors - many men of good will - who asked him to call off his protests in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. It was to those Pastors that he wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail: "Why We Can't Wait."

In 1963 most people would not have dreamed that just a few decades hence, a national holiday would be named after the young organizer and agitator, Martin Luther King.

Every major social advance is surrounded by controversy and conflict. That's because every time there is change in the status quo there are winners and losers. The controversy over President Obama's health care reform does not center mainly on "differences in approach" or academic disagreements over the way that health care systems should be designed in some ideal world. They center instead on battles over wealth and power - just as they did when the Congress created Social Security or Medicare, or passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That's why the 19th Century abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was right: "You can't have the rain without the thunder and lightning," he said. Of course Douglass was referring to the granddaddy of all major social change in our history - the end of slavery . That required a horrific civil war.

Health care reform involves one out of every six dollars spent in America today. It involves the jobs and livelihoods of millions of people and the fortunes of huge corporations. Of course change in the health care system is going to be controversial. Luckily it is not controversial with average Americans. On the health care issue, Democrats - and the President - have the political high ground. But that doesn't mean it isn't controversial with the insurance companies or with wealthy Americans who may be asked to pay a small increase in taxes (bringing their rates to the level they were in the Reagan Administration) in order to pay for needed reform.

Members of Congress can't avoid the controversy. If they want to, they should look for another line of work. All they can do is hope to be on the right side of history - to take positions that their grandchildren will brag about after they are long gone.

All that they can hope - or any of us can hope - is that the things we do will stand up to the test of history - that they will make future generations proud.

Forty years ago today, for the first time in history, human beings first set foot on another celestial object when Neil Armstrong planted his boot print on the moon. I was one of the millions of Americans who got up in the early morning hours to witness first-hand the historic event live on television. It was extraordinary - a phenomenal evolutionary advance for our species - brought to us live from outer space.

Less than a decade before, another young President challenged American to put that man on the moon. John Kennedy's vision put America in the forefront of the technological revolution that created the jobs of the future -- for a generation of Americans.

This year, President Obama challenged us again - to create the jobs of the future for our generation: millions of clean energy jobs.

Last month, the House of Representatives voted to meet that challenge - passing an energy bill that will finally begin to break our dependence on foreign oil and make America a world leader in clean energy technologies of the future. Now, members of the Senate will have to decide which side of history they will be on when it comes to creating a clean energy economy.

In the next two weeks, Members of both the House and Senate will be called upon to decide which side of history they will be on when it comes to ending our status as the only nation in the industrial world that does not guarantee health care as a human right.

The Obama health care bill is controversial because it will control the growth of health care premiums for American families. That, in turn, will take money from the pockets of some of the most powerful special interests in the country - most notably the insurance industry.

But it is safe to say that one day, future generations will look back on this battle and wonder way it wasn't obvious to everyone that every person has a right to health care - they same way we look back today and wonder how anyone could have supported slavery. Remember we still had slavery in America just 150 years ago.

Our grandkids will wonder why anyone would balk at beginning to rationalize the bloated, inefficient American health care system that leaves us 37th in the world in health care outcomes and costs us 50% more per person than any other country on the planet.

They will look back on those who tried to stand in the way of serious health care reform, the way we look back on those who tried to block the creation of Social Security or Medicare or the Civil Rights Act.

Often, when political leaders are faced with historic choices, they are forced to choose between the next election - and the next generation. This time, with the political wind at our back, they don't have to make that choice. But they do have to choose to stand up against special interest pressure and act decisively to take the actions that are necessary to build a foundation for the long-term economic success of future generations of Americans.

So in the next few weeks, talk to your Members of Congress. Ask them each what kind of legacy they want to leave after their political career is done. Tell them to stop worrying so much what the lobbyists and big contributors think about their decisions and ask themselves how those decisions will be viewed by history.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.

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