This paper will discuss three current national political issues – health care, Social Security reform, and the war on terrorism. It will look at the origins and development of these issues as they reached the national stage. In addition, this paper will also analyze the current status of these issues. Finally, I will briefly discuss my positions on these issues and analyze where that places me on the political spectrum for each issue.
Health Care as a National Issue
Health care has obviously always been a necessity of life, but it only became a national political issue in the United States following the New Deal era. Before then, Americans did not generally expect their government to have any role in providing health care to them. This changed in the aftermath of the massive government involvement in the economy of the New Deal. In 1949, President Harry Truman introduced a bill providing universal health care to all Americans, but strong opposition from conservatives in Congress and the American Medical Association defeated the proposal (Poen 161-168). In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson passed legislation creating Medicare (federally-covered health insurance for the elderly) and Medicaid (health coverage for the poor) (“Brief History of the Medicare Program”). It was thought that providing health care coverage for senior citizens and low-income citizens would be more politically palatable than covering all Americans.
The Medicare and Medicaid reforms became relatively popular politically, and hastened efforts by liberals to push for universal health care for all Americans. In 1993, newly elected President Bill Clinton made comprehensive health care reform the main focus of his first year in office. The plan, which mandated employers to provide health care coverage to all their workers, was furiously opposed by conservatives who argued that the plan involved too much bureaucracy and restricted patient choice (Edsall). This opposition, along with a public relations campaign against the bill from doctors’ groups, led to the bill’s demise.
History repeated itself in 2009, when newly elected President Barack Obama called for all Americans to have universal health care. The Obama plan sought to achieve universal coverage by expanding Medicare eligibility, creating health insurance exchanges, and establishing an individual mandate requiring individuals without health insurance to purchase it if financially able to (“Defending the Affordable Care Act”). The plan was extremely controversial, but eventually passed due to strong majorities held by Democrats in both houses of Congress.
As a conservative, I do not believe that it is the proper role of the federal government to mandate that individuals must purchase health care. Health care is not a right guaranteed in the Constitution, it is simply a commodity that can be purchased like other commodities. It cannot possibly be “free” – somebody must pay doctors for their time and purchase modern medical equipment. Covering those who cannot afford health care coverage themselves simply means that other people will be paying these costs in the form of tax dollars. Besides, many of the uninsured are simply young adults who choose not to purchase health insurance because they are relatively healthy, not people in extreme poverty (Schwartz and Schwartz). Whether this is a wise choice on their part is debatable, but it should be their choice to make in a free country, not the government’s. Individuals can determine their needs better than anyone else.
Social Security Reform – Now a Financial Necessity
Social Security, which provides benefits for the elderly, was enacted in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. This context clearly led to support for the bill; the Depression had led to large numbers of senior citizens living in poverty, and the hope was that Social Security would provide a base level of support for these elderly (Achenbaum 25-26). Initially, Social Security was conceived as a relatively limited program. Many workers, including farmers, teachers, nurses, and government employees, were not covered by the act at first (Quadagno 7).
Over the years, Social Security has expanded to cover more workers. As more women moved into the workforce, Social Security expanded to cover those jobs historically worked by women and racial minorities, such as nurses and domestics (Kessler-Harris 156). At the same time, Social Security’s impact on the federal budget continued to grow exponentially over the decades. Total Social Security benefits paid grew from $35 million in 1940 to $31.9 billion by 1970 (Achenbaum 130).
Several recent developments have called the future of Social Security into question. Perhaps the most important development has been the aging of the “baby boomer” generation. As this large segment moves out of the workforce and becomes eligible for Social Security, the pressure on the program grows. The Social Security Administration estimates that Social Security payouts will start to exceed expenses at some point in the next several years (“2007 OASDI Trustees Report Conclusions”). Social Security will be able to continue paying full benefits for some time after that by using general tax revenues, but within several decades even the general fund will have insufficient resources to pay full benefits to all retirees. At this point, the federal government will face a difficult choice – pay smaller Social Security benefits to retirees, or raise taxes on all workers to pay for full Social Security benefits for seniors.
I do believe that eventually Social Security benefits will have to be cut and the retirement age will have to be raised. This clearly marks me as a conservative on this issue, since many liberals look to Social Security as the crowning achievement of the New Deal era. Even many conservatives have been reluctant to suggest any changes to Social Security. It has become known as the “third rail” of American politics – if you touch it, you die. However, simple math makes clear that some kind of Social Security reform is inevitable. People live longer than they did in the 1930’s (“2007 OASDI Trustees Report Conclusions”). At that time, Social Security was thought of as a means to support people through the last several years of their lives. Today, it is common for people to live well into their 80’s and 90’s. It is likely that people will continue to live longer in the future with improvements in medical technology and treatment. When Social Security was created, nobody imagined that it would end up covering people for up to a third of their lives. The result of this situation has been a massive transfer of wealth from younger people entering the workforce to senior citizens – many of whom are wealthier than the workers paying into Social Security to support them. The Social Security program was well-intended at the time it was created, and it can still be useful in a more limited role. However, it has grown into a behemoth that makes up a large percentage of the federal budget. Curbing federal spending will require Social Security reform.
The War on Terror
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks made clear what many people had wanted to avoid seeing – that there were terrorist groups who desperately wanted to attack the United States, and had the capability to carry out attacks. In retrospect, there were plenty of warning signs years before September 11. Radical Islamists had previously attempted to carry out terrorist attacks on the United States, such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of United States embassies in Africa (Clark). Instead of seeing these events as a pattern, many policymakers wrote them off as isolated events perpetrated by small groups of fanatics.
Of course, September 11th changed all of that. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following the attacks have been well documented. However, this section will address actions taken inside the United States to protect the homeland. Congress passed the Patriot Act immediately in the aftermath of the attacks. The act made it easier for law enforcement to intercept phone and e-mail communications of suspected terrorist groups, and lifted restrictions on intelligence gathering (Steranko). In addition, the United States set up a camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to hold prisoners detained from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The camp has been criticized for violating the Geneva Conventions, despite the fact that prisoners at the camp were not uniformed soldiers (“Washington Debates Application of Geneva Conventions”).
Many liberals have criticized these actions as being unnecessary and harming the image of the United States. However, I believe that worrying about image is a luxury we cannot afford at a time when there are terrorists actively seeking to attack the United States. The Pentagon has reported that dozens of former Guantanamo detainees have returned to terrorism after being released (Morgan). Like other conservatives, I believe that on this issue the United States cannot simply sit back and wait to be attacked. The government must act aggressively to protect the safety of Americans, even at the risk of possibly overreacting. Terrorists will not be dissuaded from attacking the United States by a passive government. Protecting national security is a core function of government – if the government does not do it, no one else will.
Looking at these three issues combined, my views place me as a conservative. I am naturally skeptical of massive government spending on health care and Social Security. However well intended these programs may be, they have many flaws as they are currently administered by the federal government. In many cases, individuals would be better off paying less tax money to the government and using that money to set up their own retirement plans and purchase their own health insurance. In a country as large as the United States, it is difficult for government to determine what is best for each individual. This one size fits all approach is counterproductive in today’s society. At the same time, I do believe that the government should be aggressive in combatting terrorism and national security threats. Defense is a core function of government, and is outlined in the Constitution. Social welfare programs are not mentioned in the Constitution, and government generally does not manage them well. Lessening the government’s role in these programs would likely enable it to free up resources to spend on core functions, such as protecting national security.
“2007 OASDI Trustees Report Conclusions.” Socialsecurity.gov. 2011.
Achenbaum, Andrew. Social Security Visions and Revisions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
“Brief History of the Medicare Program.” SeniorJournal.org. 2011.
Clark, Malcolm. Bad Air and Rank Hypocrisy. Newstatesman.com. 2011.
“Defending the Affordable Care Act.” United States Department of Justice. 2011.
Edsall, Thomas B. Happy Hours. The New York Times, 2007.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Morgan, David. Pentagon: 61 ex-Guantanamo Inmates Return to Terrorism. Reuters, 2009.
Poen, Monte M. Harry Truman Versus the Medical Lobby: the Genesis of Medicare. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
Quadagno, Jill. The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Schwartz, Karyn & Tanya Schwartz. Uninsured Young Adults: A Profile and Overview of Coverage Options. The Kaiser Family Foundation, 2008.
Steranko, Anastasia. PATRIOT Act Inspires Discussion of Civil Liberties. The Pitt News, 2003.
“Washington Debates Application of Geneva Conventions.” Rferl.org. 2011.