By MICHAEL L. MILLENSON
Former President George H.W. Bush may have been every inch the caring individual portrayed in the eulogies of those who knew him, but when it came to health care reform, two words characterized his attitude: Don’t care.
However, compared to Congressional Republicans, Bush was a profile in conservative courage – a lesson with unfortunate parallels to now.
I covered health policy as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune during the Bush years. One strong memory, confirmed by checking original sources, was the presidential debate on Sept. 25, 1988 between Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. When Bush was asked what he’d do for the 37 million people without health insurance – about one in seven Americans – he answered that he would “permit people to buy into Medicaid.”
I remember turning from the TV to my wife and saying, “I have no idea what he’s talking about.” Neither, apparently, did anyone else. A Washington Post story that followed, headlined, “Bush’s Mysterious Medicaid Plan” noted that seeking details from the Bush campaign yielded “answers [that] are contradictory.” The story added that “Bush had never publicly mentioned the idea” until the debate.
However, the proposal did serve a political purpose by showing that Bush had an alternative to Dukakis’ plan to require most employers to provide health insurance to their employees.
Speaking of politics, fast forward to Bush’s State of the Union Address in 1992. Just a couple of months before, a Democratic political maverick named Harris Wofford had stunned political observers with his victory in a special U.S. Senate election in Pennsylvania over Republican Dick Thornburgh, who’d served both as the state’s governor and the Bush administration attorney general. The central theme of Wofford’s campaign was the compelling need for national health insurance.
Until that point, as I wrote in July,