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Saturday, Nov 23 2013 11:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Nix-o-Meter shows how far we've shifted

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor rprice@bakersfield.com

My parents visited from Colorado last week. My father, a lifelong Republican, couldn't help but comment on the vintage "Nixon's the One" bumper sticker displayed on our refrigerator-slash-bulletin board alongside report cards, dental appointment reminders and photos of friends' babies.

After he commented on the old (circa 1968) political sticker for the third time, I invited him to put it in his suitcase and take it home. Nixon was, after all, The Republican of Dad's most vital years and I had no such investment. I just like old political campaign paraphernalia.

I've actually come to feel a bit sorry for Nixon, though. In many ways, history has given him a bum rap. He normalized relations with the country we used to call (and my father still calls) Red China, oversaw two landmark arms control treaties with the Soviets and placed a telephone call to the Moon, but he's remembered best for his stubbly jowls, furrowed brows and that tragic final act of paranoia, Watergate.

Nixon resigned in August 1974 before Congress could move to impeach him, but six months before he took that last helicopter ride, he was pitching a piece of ambitious legislation to Congress: health care reform. And wouldn't you know it, that consummate Republican, the president so many Americans loved to ridicule, came up with a plan that looked a lot like the one our current socialist-in-residence foisted upon the American public in 2010.

In a message to Congress dated February 6, 1974, Nixon noted that the rapidly rising cost of medical care threatened the stability of "the average family." His plan, he said, "harmonizes" the country's "existing public and private systems of health financing," shares financial burdens among employer, employee and government, encourages efficiency and cost containment and expands and improves Medicare.

Nixon's plan would create a safety net that eliminated the possibility of medical bankruptcy, outlaw "exclusions of coverage," and cover treatment for mental illness, alcoholism, children's care and nursing home services.

As with Obama's health care law today, the opposition party had other ideas; Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy, wanted a government-administered national health care system. Might they have eventually reached some accord? Maybe, but then along came Watergate.

Nixon wasn't the first, nor the last president to call for significant health care reform. Harry Truman called for changes in 1949, as did Bill Clinton in 1993 and George W. Bush in 2005. Obama was late to this party.

But the political center has moved dramatically. In 1987, according to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans thought it was the government's job to care for those who can't care for themselves; today's it's 59 percent. Democrats' views have remained more or less the same, according to Pew; Republicans have shifted decisively right, expressing newfound disdain for unions and environmental protections. It's been said Republicans would never elect Ronald Reagan today. Without question, they would reject Nixon too.

It's no wonder, given the widening gap, that health care reform has been such an ordeal -- and that 40 years after Nixon sounded the health-care alarm, the World Health Organization ranks the U.S. 37th in overall health system performance.

Republicans and Democrats agree on many of the principles codified in the health care law; banning "recision," in which insurers cancel policies for arbitrary reasons, is just one. So, why couldn't they shake on a deal?

Nixon, in that 1974 message, nailed it: "Surely if we have the will ... we (will) find the way." We didn't, which is why, three years after its enactment, we're still fighting over the new law.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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