Medicaid expansion opponent LePage tried to put FDR and JFK on his side

In the 2014 State of the State speech, Gov. LePage repeated his reasons for opposing Medicaid expansion in Maine.

As part of that, LePage quoted two respected Democratic political leaders — Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

One way LePage did this was by saying the presidents didn’t like “welfare” and then making a quick segue from “welfare” to Medicaid.

For LePage and some Maine Republicans, that’s become a favorite rhetorical strategy.

Any government spending they don’t like is welfare. Heck, they’ve even called municipal revenue sharing welfare.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

With Franklin D. Roosevelt, LePage quoted from the 1935 State of the Union Address.

To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit… The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief.

Now, that might sound like FDR didn’t see much of a role for government to ensure security and promote health. But that would be wrong.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935

Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act

For one, in the same speech, FDR called for a massive federal program to hire people to work. And FDR proclaimed there was too much inequality of wealth, a perspective Gov. LePage has never endorsed:

Roosevelt said:

In spite of our efforts and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the over privileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged. Both of these manifestations of injustice have retarded happiness. No wise man has any intention of destroying what is known as the profit motive; because by the profit motive we mean the right by work to earn a decent livelihood for ourselves and for our families.

We have, however, a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well.

Roosevelt also previewed the legislation he would put forth that would lead to a national unemployment insurance system and Social Security.

And FDR spoke of the need for government to play a role in health care.

Closely related to the broad problem of livelihood is that of security against the major hazards of life. Here also, a comprehensive survey of what has been attempted or accomplished in many Nations and in many States proves to me that the time has come for action by the national Government. I shall send to you, in a few days, definite recommendations based on these studies. These recommendations will cover the broad subjects of unemployment insurance and old age insurance, of benefits for children, for others, for the handicapped, for maternity care and for other aspects of dependency and illness where a beginning can now be made.

And both in his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech and his 1944 “Second Bill of Rights” speech, FDR discussed health care as a right. He specifically stated that Americans have:

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

Moreover, FDR planned to introduce a bill for universal health care after the end of World War II. In some of my own research at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, NY, I saw memos laying out a postwar domestic agenda that included health care for all.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy delivers his health care speech in New York, May 20, 1962

John F. Kennedy delivers his health care speech in New York, May 20, 1962

LePage attempted to put JFK on his side, in opposition to Medicaid, as if Kennedy also would have considered the program to be a negative. He did so with JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” quote.

But President Kennedy was a major advocate of what became Medicare and Medicaid. He worked to achieve these before his assassination.

In a 1962 speech that really should get more attention, Kennedy spoke to a huge crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York, promoting the first big government health care programs he wanted passed.

Kennedy’s speech also addressed claims made by health reform opponents that are still made today.

Early on, he asks the audience to reflect on a man who has worked all his life, accumulated some, but then gets sick.

He owns his house. He has twenty-five hundred or three thousand dollars in the bank. And then his wife gets sick–and we’re all going to be in a hospital, 9 out of 10 of us, before we finally pass away, and particularly when we’re over 65–now she is sick, not just for a week but for a long time. First goes the twenty-five hundred dollars–that’s gone. Next he mortgages his house, even though he may have some difficulty making the payments out of his social security.

Then he goes to his children, who themselves are heavily burdened because they’re paying for their houses and they are paying for their sicknesses, and they want to educate their children. Then their savings begin to go. . . So therefore now, what is he going to do?

As JFK explained, this man could lose everything and his family could suffer financially, as they try to support their father’s health care expenses.

To keep this sort of thing from happening, Kennedy supported a new federal effort to cover health care costs.

President Kennedy also noted the large amount of misinformation about the proposal and spoke to an argument LePage himself makes — that government health care programs promote dependency.

JFK said, “All these arguments were made against Social Security at the time of Franklin Roosevelt,” and went on to declaim:

This argument that the Government should stay out, that it saps our pioneer stock–I used to hear that argument when we were talking about raising the minimum wage to a dollar and a quarter. I remember one day being asked to step out into the hall, and up the corridor came four distinguished-looking men, with straw hats on and canes. They told me that they had just flown in from a State in their private plane, and they wanted me to know that if we passed a bill providing for time and a half for service station attendants, who were then working about 55 to 60 hours of straight time, it would sap their self-reliance.

Surely nothing is new under the sun. Health care, a higher minimum wage — opponents are still saying they’ll undermine the American work ethic.

While there may be political benefits to claiming FDR and LBJ would oppose Medicaid expansion, that’s clearly false.

Pulling quotes from speeches does not put JFK and FDR on LePage’s side. Unlike Gov. LePage, both FDR and JFK strongly supported federal support for health care.

JFK carried on the Democratic party’s historic commitment to health care, a commitment that was furthered by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson and other Democratic presidents. Bill Clinton tried to do comprehensive reform; this failed but he got the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) passed. Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. They all worked to expand health care.

Why did these presidents do so?  Because all believed in universal coverage and saw it is a way of promoting dignity, security and opportunity, as it prevents people from going bankrupt to pay medical bills, promotes health, and saves lives.

Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy

Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy

President Johnson signing the Medicare program into law, July 30, 1965. Shown with the President (on the right in the photo) are (left to right) Mrs. Johnson; former President Harry Truman; Vice-President Hubert Humphrey; and Mrs. Truman.

President Johnson signing the Medicare program into law, July 30, 1965. Shown with the President (on the right in the photo) are (left to right) Mrs. Johnson; former President Harry Truman; Vice-President Hubert Humphrey; and Mrs. Truman.

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law, March 23, 2010

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law, March 23, 2010

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.