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Theodoric Meyer: In Health Care Debate, Republicans Should Look to Disraeli

[Mr. Meyer is a student at McGill]

Ask Congressional Republicans to name their political heroes and you’ll most likely get the same few responses. Ronald Reagan. Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt. But definitely not Benjamin Disraeli. It is to this 19th century British prime minister, however, that Republicans might look to resuscitate their battered party.

In Disraeli’s Britain, the goal of expanding the electoral franchise occupied much the same domestic political terrain that health care reform has for the last 20 years in America. Like the health care debate, many politicians on the left harbored dreams of reforming the franchise while their counterparts on the right feared it. Like health care, franchise reform seemed inevitable in the long term yet remained a challenging short-term prospect. And like health care, a reform bill’s success could make or break a government.

Unlike today’s Republicans, however, Benjamin Disraeli understood that the politics of opposition require more than just voting “nay.”

In 1866, William Gladstone, the leading British Liberal, introduced a reform bill designed to extend the vote to working-class men who met a certain property qualification. Though the bill was a moderate one, Gladstone and the Liberals made a number of tactical errors in their efforts to pass it. The reform bill—and with it the Liberal government—went down in defeat, and the Conservatives came to power.

Along with Lord Derby, his counterpart in the House of Lords, Disraeli then performed a brilliant political maneuver: he executed an end run around the Liberals and introduced another reform bill. In doing so, he usurped a traditionally Liberal issue and beat the opposition at its own game. And because Disraeli’s reform bill actually extended the franchise further, it was more popular with the public.

What motivated Disraeli to take such an unexpected action? It certainly was not sympathy for Gladstone—the two men loathed each other and clashed publicly. (Gladstone was nicknamed the Grand Old Man, abbreviated to G.O.M. in the press. Disraeli sneered, however, that the initials actually stood for God’s Only Mistake.)

Instead, Disraeli recognized that despite Gladstone’s tactical failure, public enthusiasm for reform remained strong. By introducing his own reform bill, Disraeli saw he could outflank Gladstone on the left, embarrassing the Liberals while winning support for his party.

Disraeli’s strategy stands in black-and-white contrast to that of Congressional Republicans. While Disraeli seized the issue of the day and used it to his political advantage, today’s Republicans cannot or will not court voters beyond their own shrinking base. Thus, their legislative strategy has primarily entailed voting against Democratic bills while waiting for President Obama to slip up.

To their credit, some Republican strategists recognize that this strategy will not be viable forever. “Some of the stuff that is going to work for us in the short term is not going to work in the long term,” Mike Murphy, a G.O.P. consultant, recently told The New York Times. “The heavy lifting we need for a real comeback—a comeback that would give us majorities and not just slow down Obama—is going to mean modernizing what conservatism means because the demographics of the party are changing and we are not.”

Murphy’s right, of course. But today’s Republicans do not seem to have any interest in beginning that heavy lifting. And that is particularly true on health care legislation.

Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, made headlines recently with an ill-considered remark on health care that exposed the current Republican mindset. "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo,” DeMint told his fellow Republicans. “It will break him.”

DeMint’s analogy is way off, for the president is no Napoleon. Obama is responding to popular disenchantment with flawed health care system, and the American public will give DeMint and his party little credit for “breaking” a popular president.

Republicans in Congress are in no way bound to support the president’s health care efforts. If they believe the legislation Congressional Democrats are producing is truly deficient, they should vote it down. But regardless of whether the legislation passes, the G.O.P. needs to recognize that the voters are dissatisfied with the current state of American health care—the voters they need to win majorities.

Americans aren’t wedded to the Democrats’ specific proposals, however, and Republicans can use this to their advantage. The Healthy Americans Act, an alternative bill introduced by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Robert Bennett, attracted support from prominent members of both parties earlier this year. If the Republican leadership threw its weight behind such a bill, it would be political suicide for Democrats to vote it down.

Disraeli’s lesson for Republicans is this: faced with public demand for change, it is better to effect that change on your own terms than to stand in the way of it. Americans want health care reform. If Congressional Democrats fail to deliver it, then Republicans should take up the challenge.