Monday, November 05, 2007

The Half-Life of Republican Empathy

We've all observed that a key feature of Republicans is their inability to feel empathy about an issue until it hits them directly. Every now and then you'll see a Republican holding a uncharacteristic viewpoint on something suggesting they might have a heart, and then you find out it's because some relative or other closely connected person (him or herself) was afflicted with the condition in question.

Now we know that empathy decays rather quickly.

At a packed and emotional news conference in May 2000, in which he announced he was dropping out of the race for the U.S. Senate as a result of his illness, Giuliani admitted to suddenly seeing the world very differently. He said his illness had changed him and that he wanted to reach out to minority groups and the poor. Most important, he said, he had newfound respect, understanding, and empathy for the city's uninsured. It seems Giuliani couldn't feel people's pain until he, well—literally—felt people's pain. But once he had, he stated that extending health insurance coverage to more of the city's uninsured was his top goal for his remaining 18 months in office. ''One of the things that I felt from the beginning of [my illness] and continue to feel is a tremendous sense of compassion for the people that have to make decisions like this alone," he explained. "One of the things maybe that I can do is figure out how we accelerate making sure that people are covered."

A couple of weeks later, Giuliani made good on his promise. He reversed his administration's earlier position, which sought to limit government involvement in addressing the problem of the city's uninsured—especially children. Giuliani announced he was tripling his administration's financial support for a program called Health Stat, which would aggressively recruit greater numbers of uninsured children for coverage under two existing government-run programs: Medicaid and Child Health Plus.

In other words, in the immediate wake of his own cancer diagnosis, Mayor Giuliani embraced government-run health insurance, or what candidate Giuliani now calls "socialized medicine," and explicitly tied his change of heart, in deeply personal and emotional terms, to his own experience as a prostate cancer patient. When asked what the tripling of Health Stat would cost, Mayor Giuliani replied he didn't know, but acknowledged it would be "a good deal of money." (One estimate at the time put the cost to the city over four years at roughly $390 million.) His message was clear: He didn't care what it cost, because it was the right thing to do, and he hoped New York would become "a model for the rest of the country."

How fast things change.