Provocation of the Day: Thank John Edwards for Health Care Reform

Here's an idea: if you're happy that health care passed, if you are celebrating this monumental win as a supporter of reform, then you have none other than John Edwards--he of public disgrace, of tawdry campaign affair, and, finally, of sex tape--to thank for the victory.

It was Edwards, after all, who beat the drum for health reform during the 2008 presidential campaign, ultimately making it a top issue for Democratic voters, and, perhaps--just perhaps--leading President Obama to eventually take it up as his signature issue in the first months of his nascent presidency.

Before John Edwards plummeted into a flaming spiral of his own making like a doomed Cessna, tiny gremlins resembling Andrew Young ripping at the fuel lines, he was a legitimate, though outside-shot candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination--and the only one to make health care his signature issue early on.

Edwards beat the drum for health care when no one else really cared to.

In 2007, he was making stump speeches on health care when the public cared more about the economy and Iraq. It was a play to get union endorsements in early primary states: behind the Employee Free Choice Act, health care was a top issue for labor, and labor endorsements mean something in Democratic primaries. With Hillary Clinton expected to win the Democratic nomination in a cinch, Edwards needed to give unions a reason to support someone other than the frontrunner.

So he went out and talked about health care louder, and more frequently, than anyone else. Most significantly, he proposed ideas to the left of what the mainstream--Clinton included--would endorse, forcing labor to pay attention and vaulting his status as a serious '08 contender.

Visiting the John Edwards '08 website is a bit like walking into a ghost town, but it contains such nuggets as this one: the press release announcing Edwards' health care plan, which he released long before either Clinton or Obama did, in February 2007. Obama would release his plan in May of that year; Clinton, not until mid-September.

Edwards talked about the plan, and the fact that he had one. And he talked about it a lot.

"If you're looking for heroes, don't look to me. Don't look to Elizabeth. We have support. We have health care. We have the American people behind us," Edwards said in the TV ad that introduced him to Iowa caucus-goers--another relic to be found on the old Edwards site. It was a line he used repeatedly throughout the campaign, in stump speeches in Iowa and in Democratic debates.

"Elizabeth and I decided in the quiet of a hospital room , after 12 hours of tests and after getting very bad news, what we were gonna spend our lives doing," Edwards said in that ad.

Partly because of Edwards, the 2008 Democratic primary was a story of fierce debate on health care--a debate that continued between Clinton and Obama after Edwards dropped out. He forced his opponents to talk more about health care, to engage him in his push.

Would it have played out that way had Edwards not set the tone? It's hard to say.

In early November 2007, a Newsweek poll showed health care raking third as a concern for the overall public, independent voters, and Democrats alike: 17% of all respondents rated it as their most important concern, while 22% chose the economy. Among Democrats, the economy won out with 30%, and health care again ranked behind Iraq with 22%. LA Times/Bloomberg placed the war in Iraq as the number-one concern for the public.

But by the 2008 election, CNN exit polling showed a full 73% of Obama voters rating it as a top concern--more than any other issue. (Voters could list more than one option: Iraq came in second with 59%, the economy in third with 53%.) Polls in late 2008 showed the economy far outranking any other issue in importance to voters, but, by that time, two years of talk about skyrocketing health care costs--instigated, to a large extent, by Edwards' fervent campaign to get ahead of his opponents on the issue--had made health care an economic concern, and it was reflected in those overlapping exit poll responses.

Would Obama have taken up health care as his first major initiative after the stimulus--instead of, say, education reform, an issue the president clearly is fond of--if his supporters hadn't listed it as their number-one voting issue in November? Again, it's hard to say.

But Obama entered the White House with a mandate to first fix the economy, then address health care. That's exactly what he sought to do.

And, like it or not, John Edwards had something to do with it. Even if watching John and Elizabeth Edwards in those old ads makes you feel a little dirty, it's probably the truth.

Thumbnail photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Presented by

Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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