Back to the roots 

Schweitzer reenters the health care debate

Thousands of Montanans watched, listened to or read about President Obama's town hall meeting on health care reform in Montana last week. The president shared the stage with Montana's senators and did his best to embrace Sen. Max Baucus' efforts to develop "bipartisan" health reform legislation. But it was Gov. Brian Schweitzer who took the podium to resoundingly endorse a Canadian-style, universal health care system—returning to the populist roots of the issue that brought him into politics.

Those who haven't been in Montana for at least a decade probably won't recall the political emergence of Schweitzer, when he decided to take on incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns in the 2000 elections. Schweitzer blew into public awareness like a tornado, ripping Burns for being in thrall to corporate interests that were trashing the environment and failing to meet the real needs of Montana's citizens.

One of the primary issues Schwei-tzer concentrated on was the radical difference in cost for prescription drugs in Canada versus the United States. To illustrate his commitment to the issue, Schweitzer organized bus tours of senior citizens to go to Canada and buy the prescription drugs they needed.

Given Schweitzer's showmanship, the prescription drug protests were a huge success and brought him enormous support for actually concentrating on the needs of Montana's citizens instead of the desires of the D.C. lobbyists he claimed were controlling Burns.

Riding that wave of populism—and the very realistic need for affordable prescription drugs—Schweitzer came within a hair's breadth of defeating Burns. The race, by all measures, was amazing considering only months before he was a political unknown—and pulling down an incumbent senator with a massive D.C. special-interest war chest is almost an impossible task.

As we all know, Schweitzer never stopped campaigning after his initial run and became governor in 2004—in large part building on the populism of his senatorial bid and promising Montanans a "New Day" when he took office.

Unfortunately, being the governor of Montana is a lot different role than being a U.S. Senator, and Schweitzer's focus soon left prescription drugs and national health care issues behind. Instead, he turned to other issues, such as energy, which have largely consumed him and haven't brought nearly the support his earlier populist stands generated.

But suddenly last week, the old Brian Schweitzer returned to the stage with his signature issue and ripped loose in the presence of two formidable national politicians with health care positions considerably different than his. The governor let fly with a resounding endorsement of the Canadian health system, telling the crowd to roaring applause that the most popular Canadian of all time in a recent nationwide poll was Tommy Douglas, the man responsible for Canada's universal health care system, which has been in place since 1962.

Baucus, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is a key player in the health care debate since any reform measure must pass his committee's scrutiny. Unfortunately, Baucus has not followed Schweitzer's earlier populist stands on health care, preferring to protect the status quo of insurance and pharmaceutical domination of the American health care system at the expense of true health care reform.

Likewise, Obama has retreated an enormous distance from his initial promises on reforming health care in the United States and, echoing Baucus' pledge to devise a "uniquely American" system, has fallen into the same trap as Baucus. Namely, no one can figure out what either one is talking about these days, what their "plans" are, or how they can reform health care by leaving the most egregious parts of the system—the for-profit health insurance and drug industries—intact.

Even worse, the vernacular of both Baucus and Obama has left any consideration of universal health care far behind as they attempt to morph the issue into health insurance reform rather than health care reform—two very different things.

As those following the issue know, Obama is now catching enormous heat nationwide for his withdrawal this week from insisting on a "public option" to openly compete with the health insurance industry, saying it's merely "a sliver" in health care reform. Whichever D.C. "strategists" are coaching Baucus and Obama ought to be shown to the door—the back door—because they are now left with positions that defy comprehensible definition.

In the meantime, both Max and Obama have alienated the progressive base that helped elect them while doing nothing to mollify the boiling anger of those who oppose "government run" health care. In effect, they have satisfied no one, angered many and left themselves in the untenable position of trying to sell an amorphous "plan" many oppose and, since it's basically gutted, no one is willing to fight for.

If there is a lesson here, it's that Democrats win—and win big—when they stick to basic populist positions that people can understand and that they believe will bring them the changes they need and have long waited for. Fighting for the people is something we can understand. Universal health care is something we can understand. A single-payer system that takes care of all citizens, regardless of their ability to pay, is something we can understand and support. In fact, we'd go to the mat for them if they had the guts to stand up for us.

But they're not. They've fallen prey to prevarication, evasion and, sadly, the same old reluctance to take on the corporate powers that be, preferring to sacrifice the health of the nation's citizens to the well-being of corporate coffers.

In contrast, the message from Montana's governor was straightforward and undeniably on target: Why re-invent the wheel when we have an example of universal health care that has worked for a half-century for our neighbors to the north? It's refreshing to see Schweitzer on his game again—and kudos to him for returning to his populist roots.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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