Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said little about health care, though the one fragment that is quoted leaves no doubt about where he stood: “Of all the
forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and the most
inhumane.” The quote is hard to confirm (see notes below), but health care proponents losing ground to a fear campaign need King's power to stoke determination in the service of hope.
Tuesday's election in Massachusetts is instead about the power to generate fear. Republican Scott Brown, until recently a merely right of center state Senator, may well defeat Democrat Martha Coakley, the state attorney general. Brown's campaign, stoking mistrust of government and populist emotion, borrows from the rhetorical fire of King but aims only for anger--at government, at bankers, at Congress and at health care reform. He has vowed to be the vote to kill health legislation--and humiliate President Obama.
Coakley, a generally popular Massachusetts liberal and health reform backer, ran a lackluster no-debate campaign until--maybe--too late.
Brown has no history against health reform. He voted in favor of the near-universal health care plan in Massachusetts, including its requirement for mandatory purchase of insurance. He's pro-choice and generally pro-environment, according to a questionnaire he filled out for a voter-information survey in 2002. That Scott Brown would never have passed muster with the national GOP leadership. But Brown is on a different political horse now, and simply looking like a winner is enough.
He hasn't been able to articulate in detail why the health reform that he favored for Massachusetts is terrible for the rest of the country. He's just against it, or against letting any Massachusetts dollars go to help a sick person in another state. It's a position that has brought him scads of donations and powerful national backing.
But here's another King quote, a well-documented one that applies in this fight, arguing for campaigns based on conscience rather than expediency, and politicians willing to forgo playing it safe:
"On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' And Vanity comes along and asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But Conscience asks the question 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.
Address at the Episcopal National Cathedral, Washington D.C., March 31, 1968
Notes on the King healthcare quote:
The source given for this quote is a speech delivered in 1966 in Chicago to the Medical Committee for Human Rights. The speech isn't in popular archives of King's work, and the quote is just a fragment of a sentence. But King was in Chicago through 1966, sparring often with Mayor Richard J. Daley. The committee was founded by his Chicago physician, Dr. Quentin Young, specifically in response to King's appeals. So it makes sense that King would speak to the committee. If anyone has seen a copy of the speech, I'd love to read it. JD