When I was in ninth grade, I returned home after a particularly inspiring world history class and announced to my mother that I wanted to be Secretary of State when I grew up. Far from being excited, she was worried. Politics, in her mind, was a corrupting profession that was more about self interest than service.
It's no secret that many people in the United States share her view. They have watched in frustration as the promises of politicians have faded into the status quo. They've watched with resignation as moneyed interests have rendered their opinions inconsequential.
For most of the year, the health-care debate did not inspire many to feel differently about politicians or the political process. But in the closing days, a different strain of passion emerged in the debate, most clearly from the President himself. It was the moral argument for health reform.
The moral argument for health reform is not new; people have been voicing it for decades. But in the back and forth of the last year, it has been buried under stories about sparring politicians, raucous town halls, and clashing protesters. Stories of people who suffered in silence with preventable illness are difficult to hear, and they don't sell many papers. But these stories are important to tell because they inform our motivations for taking action.
The health-care bill that has now made it through Congress is far from perfect. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a public option included and a national exchange to provide more choice and competition in the insurance market. But the legislation that was passed takes powerful steps forward. It increases coverage to 31 million more Americans, it regulates insurance companies and prohibits discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, it lays the ground work for doctors to deliver higher quality care to patients, and it takes major steps control cost. In these four areas, it does more than any piece of legislation in over half a century.
In a nation where over 40,000 Americans die each year because they have no health insurance, how could we have justified waiting to pass legislation that we know can save lives? In a country that values hard work and self reliance, how could we not have acted when Americans who have done everything right still have their insurance revoked when they get sick?
What we do when faced with such questions says something about who we are as a people. When we responded to the Pearl Harbor attacks and rose to Europe's defense in World War II, we didn't base our decision on the price tag. Our national conscience told us what was right, and we found a way to make it work. When disaster struck Haiti, we didn't base our decision to help on political risks and benefits. Gathering food, clothing, money, and rescue workers, we rose to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters overseas because we knew it was the right thing to do. It was a moment that should have made all Americans proud.
Choosing to pass a comprehensive health reform bill this week, contentious and complex as it was, was another defining moment for our country. We defined ourselves as a nation with rich ideas and a great deal of passion. We reminded ourselves that we are not just a collection of individuals but also a community that looks out for each other.
Most importantly, we defined ourselves as a people with moral courage who are able and willing to make extraordinarily tough decisions for the greater good of the nation. In the process, we also helped restore a sense of faith in everyday Americans like my mother that our flawed political system can still effect positive change.
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt from a speech given at the Sorbonne in 1910