Back in 1965, so the story goes, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and told Bill Moyers that the Democrats had just signed away the South for a generation. He was right, of course; in 1968 Richard Nixon ran on the “Southern Strategy” of ginning up fear and loathing among white voters and pulled them into the GOP. Twelve years later Ronald Reagan did the same with his “Reagan Democrats,” and to this day the GOP can effectively define itself as the party of the white man that still harbors resentment against those “outside agitators” (blacks, women, immigrants, gays, the educated) who seem to threaten his way of life even as they struggle with the faltering economy, unaffordable healthcare, and the loss of their sense of entitlement to the things they thought they were promised when they bought into the American Dream.
President Johnson did not hesitate to sign the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights Act even if his appraisal of the future of the Democrats in the South was optimistic. He may have been the consummate politician who gloried in the kind of backroom deals and arm-twisting that won the passage of the bill with the help of the now-extinct liberal Republicans and against the Southern Democrats like Sen. Richard Russell, but he also knew that what he was signing was the right thing to do and that whatever the political cost was to his party, equal rights was more important than the politics of the moment.
It’s not even a day after the House passed the healthcare bill; the President hasn’t signed it, and the Senate has yet to vote on the reconciliation package that will make the changes to the bill that were wrought to get the bill itself passed. So it’s impossible to predict with any sense of surety what the legacy of this landmark legislation will mean to the November mid-term elections, much less what it will mean 45 years from now. Will it save lives and cut costs? So we would like to believe. Will it happen tomorrow? No; the results will not be known in tangible ways for months or years or seen in ways that we can predict through cause and effect or even the unintended consequences. After all, who’s to say that the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 didn’t lead to guiding the Supreme Court in overturning miscegenation laws in 1967? Will some members of the House lose their seats because of their vote last night? Probably, but that was a foregone conclusion long before the votes were taken, nor will it silence the howls from the right-wingers and the scum of the teabaggers who littered the halls of Congress over the weekend with their overt hatred and racism.
There will be a lot of process stories about how the deals were made, how the votes were got, and who promised what to whom. But what finally matters is that the bill was passed and that after all the years and false starts, something was actually done. This is why people run for Congress, or, at the least, the reason that they should. And if it costs them the majority — as it did for the Democrats 45 years ago — they will know that it was worth it, and that is all that matters.