The two programs are now a staple of American political culture. But a backward glance at the political environment during their inception reveals equally fierce, ugly antipathy from conservatives — including screaming warnings that they’d be ruinous to freedom.
During the 1935 debate over Social Security, Republicans likened it to slavery and dictatorship.
"Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people," said Rep. John Taber (R-NY).
"The lash of the dictator will be felt," said Rep. Daniel Reed (R-NY), "and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test."
Rep. James W. Wadsworth (R-NY) cautioned that passage of Social Security would open the door to a government power “so vast, so powerful as to threaten the integrity of our institutions and to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants.”
Three decades later, when Medicare was first conceived in the early 1960s, the public was deeply divided, and similar warnings were voiced. Embodying the conservative movement’s sentiments at the time was Ronald Reagan, who taped a recording on behalf of the American Medical Association warning that the program would, quite simply, lead to the destruction of freedom.
"If Medicare passes into law, the consequences will be dire beyond imagining," Reagan said. If opponents failed to scuttle it, he warned, "One of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free."
Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, in 1964, likened Medicare to free vacations and beer. “Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind,” he said, “why not food baskets, why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?”
Half a century later, Republicans loudly and proudly proclaim their support for both programs, and are loathe to admit their party ever opposed them.
But history repeats itself. In 2010, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act — the largest expansion of the safety net since Medicare — following a similarly intense debate. Democrats heralded it as a step toward a more humane society, and Republican opponents warned it would pose a grave threat to economic freedom. Unlikely Social Security and Medicare, Obamacare failed to win over even a fraction of Republicans, who were reduced a small, deeply ideological rump in both chambers of Congress after two landslide elections for Democrats.
This week, Obamacare took a leap toward sustainability as it crossed the milestone of 7 million insurance sign-ups. Even as conservative wonks concede that the program is probably here to stay, the residue from the hyper-partisan and polarizing debate lingers, and Republicans remain committed to dismantling it. But if past is prologue, over time as the coverage expansion and benefits fully take effect, the fatalistic warnings will fizzle and Republicans will come to terms with the new health care program.
"In politics, losses always worry people more than abstract future gains entice them. Now, every vote to repeal or eviscerate Obamacare risks offending millions – and the potential to arouse pushback will only grow," argued Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor, sociologist and liberal author. “This story isn’t like Social Security, where most potential beneficiaries saw few gains for two decades. Affordable Care is already a massive presence in U.S. health care. It cannot be rolled back and those who keep championing that Lost Cause will do so at rising political peril.”