Where's Our Stephen Douglas?

Why Health-care Reform Is Worth the Political Price

The other night I took my kids to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., to see The Rivalry, a play by Norman Corwin written in 1958 to commemorate the centennial of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. As is usual when I drag them to something that sounds educational, I ended up learning a thing or two myself. For instance, that Stephen Douglas threw away any hope he had of winning the presidency in 1860 by speaking out against secession on a campaign tour of Southern states, though he knew he’d lose what was left of his base as a result. Also that Douglas deserves a decent share of the credit for keeping our home state of Illinois in the union.

Abraham Lincoln had withdrawn from politics after serving in the House of Representatives and was a lawyer in private practice in 1854 when he heard Senator Douglas speak in defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Act at the Illinois State Fair. Douglas had authored the bill, which gave Kansans and Nebraskans the right to decide whether they would be slave-holding when they became states, nullifying the Missouri Compromise that had limited slavery to states where it already existed. The Kansas-Nebraska Act poured kerosene on the national fight over slavery, and the speech Lincoln heard at the fair so angered him that he decided to run for senator against Douglas in 1858.

At one point in the play, which is based on transcripts of the famous campaign debates, Douglas mockingly asks Lincoln whether it doesn’t follow logically that if the black man is allowed to vote, then he’ll at some point be allowed to run for office and eventually might serve as mayor, governor, or—ha!—member of the U.S. Senate. (The idea of a black president was apparently too ridiculous even to joke about.)

Lincoln scoffs at that argument, along with Douglas’s suggestion that he probably doesn’t see anything wrong with interracial marriage. Though enlightened for his day, Honest Abe makes a number of remarks that assume the inferiority of nonwhites; it’s good to be reminded that for much of his career, even Lincoln was no Lincoln. In fact, with his down-home clowning, also drawn from the historical record, the Lincoln of The Rivalry sometimes brings to mind President George W. Bush.

Our forty-fourth president has passed up no opportunity to compare himself to our sixteenth commander-in-chief, and whether those parallels will turn out to have been apt we can’t yet say. But what I want to know is, where is our flawed but ultimately heroic Stephen Douglas? That Douglas had been called every name in the book by Lincoln, and vice versa, made his willingness to go back to Illinois at President Lincoln’s request in 1861 to speak out against secession all the more impressive. Douglas was ill before beginning the trip, and died while he was there, in Chicago, at age forty-eight.

Who on the national stage today would knowingly blow up his or her political future for the common good, no matter how important the issue? Or sacrifice his health on an errand for the rival who had bested and humiliated him?

It took disgraced Illinois Gov. George Ryan—a man who was on his way to prison himself—to empty the state’s death row in 2003; no official with a political pulse has followed suit. And the only member of Congress I can recall knowingly casting a politically suicidal vote was Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a one-termer from Pennsylvania who cast the deciding vote for Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget. (Her son is currently engaged to Chelsea Clinton, but I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that she got a daughter-in-law in the deal.)  

When I asked my PoliticsDaily.com colleagues whom I might be overlooking, the only suggestions they had for my list were Senator Edmund G. Ross, who voted against impeaching Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson; and pacifist Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives (in 1916). Rankin voted against entering both World Wars, in part on the grounds that as a woman, she couldn’t fight, so it wouldn’t be right to vote to send anybody else to do so. In 1941 hers was the only vote opposed to war, and her stance was so unpopular that she knew better than to run again in 1942.

Pushing through health-care reform could be politically perilous for today’s Democrats, but I say: Wouldn’t that be better than caving on such an important moral issue? (From a strictly practical viewpoint, the prospect of caving and losing anyway is not exactly far-fetched.)

There is plenty of room in the history books for both Republicans and Democrats who are willing to vote yes now and improve the thing later. Though not on par with slavery, this reform is a moral imperative and should have been presented as such from day one. Don’t get me started on the lobbying dollars spent to spin it as a government takeover of a sixth of the economy. I would have bet against Americans worrying themselves sick over the God-given right of insurance companies to kick sick people to the curb mid-chemo—but in many Congressional districts, I would have lost that bet.

The other reason the Democrats should ram this through if they have to? Because they can, of course, at least as of this writing.


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Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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