U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison spent his Washington, D.C., snow days back in Minnesota, trying to inspire Democrats who have become discouraged by a health care debate that seems to have become stuck in a deep drift.
“I’m still confident we will have a health care bill by this spring,” said the 5th District congressman during a Friday conversation in his office in the Urban League building in north Minneapolis. “The bill that comes out likely won’t look much like one I would have written. I’m for a universal plan. But it will start us on a trajectory to real change.”
Even in the giddy (for progressive Democrats) first days of the Obama presidency, when sweeping changes seemed possible in health care, Ellison was trying to warn his constituents that health care reform would not be easy.
Then, and now, he compared health care reform to the civil rights movement, which evolved slowly.
“You don’t move from all bad to all good,” he said. “It never works that way. Look at the great social changes in our country. They always come in pieces. We may look at civil rights coming in one sweeping gesture with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But we forget the 1957 civil rights act, the 1960 civil rights act. The great speech Hubert Humphrey gave at the Democratic Convention in 1948. All of these things had to happen before you could have the sweeping change of 1964.”
The health care reform bill that Ellison believes will emerge this spring will be a small step before another small step before another small step.
“If we can get a bill passed, I think Americans will feel the change and they’ll see it’s good,” said Ellison. “Then we will be on an irreversible course.”
He worries that reform supporters will give up
The great threat to reform, Ellison believes, is that supporters will throw in the towel.
“I’ve been telling people, ‘You can’t give up now,’ ” said Ellison. “It’s in our grasp.”
Ellison does understand the discouragement. Even he’s felt it.
He said he was as appalled as anyone at the deals Senate leadership had to make with some Democratic senators to try to achieve 60 votes.
“Senate rules are dysfunctional,” he said. “But don’t forget, we passed a bill in the House. Nancy Pelosi was a great leader.”
He even was discouraged by the president.
“Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s clear that the White House needed to be more involved,” said Ellison, who worked so hard to help get the president elected.
Even now, he believes that the president is wasting valuable time trying to bring Republicans into the health care process.
“He can go to their [Republican] meetings, and we all know he can out-reason them and out-talk them,” said Ellison. “But I can’t believe he really thinks he can get them to change their votes. Out-talking them is a lot different than getting them to push the green button.”
Ellison understands why “entrenched money” [the insurance industry] is fighting reform with such energy.
He’s a little more perplexed about why so many of the so-called Tea Partiers have joined the fray against health care reform.
“The people I see at their events would seem to be the people who would benefit [from reform],” he said.
In an effort to understand that Tea Party anger, and perhaps try to re-focus it, Ellison has taken to studying an awful racist from the 1890s, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, who was a governor than a long-serving senator from South Carolina.
“He was a populist who talked about economic injustice, but only to white farmers,” said Ellison. “That’s relevant because in times of great economic stress, people look for somebody to blame. In his time, it was the big banks and ‘those people [blacks].’ He’d say, ‘You hard workers are being dragged down by bankers and those people.’ ”
What does Pitchfork Ben have to do with the Tea Party movement, which has played a big in helping to stall health care reform?
“I don’t believe the Tea Partiers are racist, though at their events it doesn’t look like a multicultural movement,” said Ellison. “But it’s a movement built on anger. That’s not a bad thing. People have a reason to be angry. From what I’ve seen, the right has given them a bomb and that makes them feel better in the short term, but it doesn’t really help them with the issues that make them angry. We [Democrats] need to let them see that we all do better when we all do better.”
Ellison works to rekindle political passions
So while the snow brought Washington to a standstill, Ellison moved around the district, trying to re-ignite political fires.
“The level of excitement about his election has worn off,” said Ellison. “I keep hearing, ‘I wish he was more this,’ or ‘I wish he was more that.’ I keep saying we shouldn’t forget what he has accomplished. He changed the environment internationally how people look at us. He’s working on the stuff in the Mideast and in the Muslim world, but it’s hard slugging. The Recovery Act has been a success. He signed S-Chips [the bipartisan insurance program for poor children which had been vetoed by President Bush]. The economy is improving. There have been accomplishments.”
But health care reform is stuck.
“I’m saying, ‘Buck up, people, we’re just getting started,’ ” Ellison said.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.