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Pawlenty in the shadow of states' rights

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Pawlenty in the shadow of states' rights
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's call for states to stand behind the 10th Amendment to avoid federal health care reform is the latest political ploy from an ambitious politician. And Pawlenty's call has been joined by state Rep. Tom Emmer, who himself hopes to succeed Pawlenty as governor.


One thing's for certain -- Tim Pawlenty is running for president. And, he's willing to support some radical ideas in order to lead a crowded field of better known Republican hopefuls. But while states' rights may be a sure winner with today's Republican caucus goers, it was most memorably used during one of the greatest tests of our national resolve, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And its connotations are not pretty.

As with civil rights, no other issue today matches health care reform for the deep emotional response it elicits. In the 1950s and '60s, a national consensus emerged that the status quo -- segregation -- was unacceptable. Today, the vast majority of Americans agree that the current health care system is badly broken and must be fixed.

Both issues raise the same moral question: is inequality OK? Is it acceptable for some to be excluded from access to health care because of cost, employment status, pre-existing condition, or the whims of the private insurance industry? If not, what are we as a society going to do about it and what is the role of our national government?

With his invocation of states' rights, Pawlenty makes another connection between the health care debate and the civil rights movement. The same threat was tried by southern governors to resist desegregation.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus used the 10th Amendment to resist President Eisenhower's order to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. Five years later, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett used the same argument to block James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi. The next year, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, literally stood in the way of a federal desegregation order for the Alabama public schools. In each case, the 10th Amendment was invoked as the last defense of an unjust system against an enlightened national consensus.

Here in Minnesota, health insurance premiums for Minnesota families have increased 35 percent. Minnesota's uninsured population now stands at over 450,000. And earlier this year, Pawlenty eliminated coverage for another 30,000 of the state's poorest adults, disproportionately impacting minorities and people of color who are overrepresented in public health care programs.

This is the track record Gov. Pawlenty wants to protect from federal intervention?

We don't know what kind of health care reform will emerge out of Washington this fall. And, we don't know its scope. But, if President Obama's core principles are met, we do know that more Americans will have access to the health care they need at a more affordable cost.

The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, former governor of South Carolina, ran for president in 1948 as a third-party "Dixiecrat," using the cry for states' rights to advance his political ambitions. Southern Democrats, alarmed that the federal government had begun the tilt toward support for civil rights, saw their way of life crumbling. Thurmond exploited this sentiment for political gain, earning only 2.4 percent of the popular vote, but mobilizing segregationists nationally.

Like Thurmond, Faubus and Wallace before him, time will tell if Tim Pawlenty will come out on the right, or on the wrong, side of history.

But in going to extremes to deny Minnesotans the ability to access the same federal health care that other Americans would have the freedom to enjoy, it's hard not to predict the latter.

Dan McGrath is the executive director of TakeAction Minnesota.

Pioneer staff reports