When I read the governor’s health care message, I had the oddly uneasy feeling I had seen this all before. Then I realized that I had. Half a century ago, when I was a little boy. Make that, a fat little boy. President-elect John F. Kennedy declared that physical fitness was the business of the government.
He wrote an essay in Sports Illustrated called “The Soft American,” established a White House Committee on Health and Fitness, and challenged his staff to take a fifty-mile hike. Some did, although his famously rotund press secretary, Pierre Salinger, declined, saying “I may be plucky, but I’m not stupid.”
The President was especially concerned about child obesity. A song was written, called Chicken Fat, and we little baby-boomers had to exercise to it. Most of the nation enthusiastically greeted the physical fitness program. But the President didn’t seek to change any laws, And then he was killed and lifestyles changed.
While there still is a President’s Council on Physical Fitness, he seldom hear anything about it. President Kennedy died before the link between cancer and smoking was proven.
If he were to come back from the dead, he might be pleased that fewer than half as many people smoke now as did then. But he would certainly be appalled at how fat we are, especially children.
Governor Snyder’s health message aims to do something about that. He correctly notes that society is paying a high price for the fact that so many of us are so fat, and exhibit other unhealthy behaviors. Whether you agree with his policies or not, here’s what I think the key is to understanding our governor.
He believes in common-sense, rational behavior. If it is clear that our rampant obesity is not only a health hazard, but costs the state money, he wants to stop it. If it is clear that cigarette butts on the beach are poisoning the water and killing birds, he wants laws written to do something about that too.
The governor also believes in fairness, and with autism rates skyrocketing, thinks insurers should be required to cover it.
All that makes sense to him, and may make sense to us. But the governor is about to discover something about his colleagues in the state GOP. Many don’t think that way. Speaker of the House Jase Bolger is fat. He himself said so yesterday. But he opposes the government tracking the body mass indexes of children. He said he was uncomfortable with the government recording that information, which seems bizarre.
Is he opposed to collecting statistics about infectious diseases, too? The Speaker, perhaps at the bidding of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, also contemptuously dismissed the governor’s plea for an autism insurance mandate. He said he won’t even take that up.
Politically, this sets up an interesting dilemma. Clearly, if the governor is to make any of his health initiatives happen, he is going to need support from a lot of Democrats in the legislature, along with an enlightened minority of Republicans.
The next few months will test whether he’s capable of that, and whether a majority of lawmakers are capable of rising above narrow ideology and partisan bickering for the good of the state.