Fifteen years ago, Bob Dole decided it was better to kill health care reform than to hand a Democratic president a historic victory. Since then, praise be, he's reformed his thinking.
In Kansas City last week, the former Republican Senate majority leader and presidential candidate added his voice -- still strong at age 86 -- to the push to help all Americans afford good health care.
"This is one of the most important measures members of Congress will vote on in their lifetimes," Dole told an audience at the Liberty Memorial auditorium.
Dole and Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate leader, have been collaborating for months on a set of health care principles they think can achieve bipartisan consensus. Their efforts have earned him a rebuke from Senate Republicans, Dole said.
"We're already hearing from some high-ranking Republicans that we shouldn't do that (because) 'That's helping the president,"' he said.
Later, Dole identified one critic as a "very prominent Republican, who happens to be the Republican leader of the Senate."
That would be Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Dole, to his credit, is tuning out the interference. "I don't want the Republicans putting up a 'no' sign and saying, 'we're not open for business,"' he said.
Good for him. But if McConnell is myopic enough to lean on an elder statesman, one can imagine the pressure on members of the caucus.
In their statement, Dole and Daschle said they had each "worked for years to reform the health care system and watched with frustration as efforts failed time and time again."
That claim is misleading in Dole's case. As Senate majority leader, he worked to achieve a compromise health care bill during Bill Clinton's first term and then abruptly reversed course. "There is no health care crisis," Dole asserted, and declared the GOP caucus off-limits to White House proposals.
Clinton pegs the change of heart to a memo written by Republican strategist Bill Kristol, who warned party leaders that a health care victory would empower Democrats "for a generation."
Dole, asked recently by reporters about Clinton's contention, doesn't deny it. He obliquely blames "politics" for the failure of health care reform in 1994.
Today, Dole is promoting the bill up for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee as the most promising vehicle to achieve reform.
"I want this to pass," he told the Kansas City audience. "I don't agree with everything President Obama is proposing, but we've got to do something."
His good advice to Congress today: Get something done. Give more Americans affordable access to better care. Change the incentives in health care to reward value, not volume. If you can't fix everything in one bill, get 70 percent done and take on the rest later.
Since 1994, when Dole and others allowed politics to derail reform, the amount the average American spends on health care has risen an average of 5.5 percent a year -- more than twice the rate of inflation over those 15 years. The ranks of the uninsured have increased.
Health care spending now takes up more than 17 percent of the total value of goods and services produced in the U.S. If we go an additional 15 years without reform, the Congressional Budget Office predicts we'll be spending a whopping 25 percent of our gross domestic product on health care.
Which aging senator will step to the podium then to express regret for letting "politics" ruin a historic opportunity in Barack Obama's first term? Mitch McConnell maybe?
Spare us. Americans have paid dearly for Washington's folly of 15 years ago. Refusal to act now would be a tragic repeat, at an even greater cost.
Barbara Shelly is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by e-mail at bshellykcstar.com.