When Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy died, there was a lot of rhetoric from many progressive Democrats that essentially said, “Let’s win one (health care reform) for Teddy!” Much of it centered on Kennedy’s career-long passion for health care reform. And in recent weeks as health care reform began being shaped by the twin political buzzsaws known as “partisanship” and “compromise,” there have been rumblings in the new media blogs and progressive talk shows about how Ted Kennedy was missed and would hate the current bill.
Not so, says his wife Victoria Reggie Kennedy — who should known a bit about how Kennedy viewed his goal of health care reform. Writing in the Washington Post she says that Kennedy was above all a political realist, who predicted precisely what would happen and who would consider the current bill a solid first step towards his bigger goal. Here are a few excerpts:
My late husband, Ted Kennedy, was passionate about health-care reform. It was the cause of his life. He believed that health care for all our citizens was a fundamental right, not a privilege, and that this year the stars — and competing interests — were finally aligned to allow our nation to move forward with fundamental reform. He believed that health-care reform was essential to the financial stability of our nation’s working families and of our economy as a whole.
Still, Ted knew that accomplishing reform would be difficult. If it were easy, he told me, it would have been done a long time ago. He predicted that as the Senate got closer to a vote, compromises would be necessary, coalitions would falter and many ardent supporters of reform would want to walk away. He hoped that they wouldn’t do so. He knew from experience, he told me, that this kind of opportunity to enact health-care reform wouldn’t arise again for a generation.
In the early 1970s, Ted worked with the Nixon administration to find consensus on health-care reform. Those efforts broke down in part because the compromise wasn’t ideologically pure enough for some constituency groups. More than 20 years passed before there was another real opportunity for reform, years during which human suffering only increased. Even with the committed leadership of then-President Bill Clinton and his wife, reform was thwarted in the 1990s. As Ted wrote in his memoir, he was deeply disappointed that the Clinton health-care bill did not come to a vote in the full Senate. He believed that senators should have gone on the record, up or down.
Ted often said that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He also said that it was better to get half a loaf than no loaf at all, especially with so many lives at stake. That’s why, even as he never stopped fighting for comprehensive health-care reform, he also championed incremental but effective reforms such as a Patients’ Bill of Rights, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and COBRA continuation of health coverage.
What’s going on here? Kennedy was of a different political mindset than some activists in 21st century America: he was part of a political generation and political culture that didn’t consider compromise — even some compromises that could seemingly break your heart — as “selling out,” or betrayal but as part of the sometimes unseemly horse-trading process called politics. In elections, it’s a zero sum game when it comes to winning a seat; in Congress’s legislative process you can still advance a cause if you take some steps foward or even more steps forward as you take a few steps back.
But you can’t advance if you refuse to take the step because the path is not exactly the one you want, the path is obstructed or you want to punish those on the other side or your side who didn’t give you exactly the path you wanted — pristine, unfettered by ugly litter, with no pesky boulders in the way that you need to lift or walk around — in the first place.
She flatly states:
The bill before the Senate, while imperfect, would achieve many of the goals Ted fought for during the 40 years he championed access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans.
And at the end:
The bill before Congress will finally deliver on the urgent needs of all Americans. It would make their lives better and do so much good for this country. That, in the end, must be the test of reform. That was always the test for Ted Kennedy. He’s not here to urge us not to let this chance slip through our fingers. So I humbly ask his colleagues to finish the work of his life, the work of generations, to allow the vote to go forward and to pass health-care reform now. As Ted always said, when it’s finally done, the people will wonder what took so long.
Will this make any difference? Most likely not. Never underestimate the ability of political passion — particularly passion mixed with 21st rage which portrays those who do not completely buy into an important idea advocated by the hard left or hard right — to trump political realities. To some, giving up part of what you want with the idea that it’s a first step and you can build on it later is the equivalent of virtual political treason (those who do it are DINOs, RINOS or even worse…centrists and moderates). Her essay will either be ignored or it’ll be suggested that she really doesn’t know what she’s talking about and that Kennedy would have hated the bill. After all: she was his wife; what does SHE know?
Another issue could be: what does it matter?
Just as the Tea Party protesters and some on the GOP right have made it clear they have had enough with what they consider their wimpish Republican establishment who won’t confront, battle and polarize enough to their liking, some on the Democratic left believe the 2008 election was a chance to use clout — real or simply desired — to beat back Republicans. Just as some on the GOP right feel moderates and centrists are messing up their party, so do some on the Democratic left. Some Republicans conservatives see moderates and centrists as obstacles and tools of the Democrats. Some Democratic liberals see moderates and centrists as tools of the Republicans.
Of course, then there is Joe Lieberman who is emerging in his own class: he does generally have big fans among Republicans, Fox News and conservative talkers such as Sean Hannity and he truly does seem to have a personal anger “issue” with the Democratic left. But, then, some on the Democratic left have an issue with him (right Al Franken?).
But Ted Kennedy knew how to work with all of them — because it was not just in his political self-interest on a given piece of legislation, but working with those who disagree was in his life’s political goals self interest. He was of the old school where you aggregated interests to achieve a goal — versus the 21st school where you aggravate some interests by going after a segment or some leaders to make examples of those who don’t give you everything you want on an issue.
How big did the name “Teddy Kennedy” look in the health care debate? Look at these old stories:
—‘Win One for Teddy,’ Say Dems Pushing for Health Reform
—Ted Kennedy’s Death a Loss for Democratic Health Care Push
—Health care reform was Sen. Ted Kennedy’s unfinished life’s work
—Kennedy Death Adds Volatile Element to Health Fight
—Ted Kennedy Speaks Out On Health Care Reform: “The Cause Of My Life”
The Kennedys in general were political realists — some would argue cynics — who knew hardball, played it, and were sometimes battered by it. In all their battles, they kept an eye on the long-term and realized that reaching political goals was not that easy if you didn’t have political power.
Meanwhile, Tom Sullivan, writing in The Huffington Post, says President Barack Obama has now lost his Democratic party base:
The media was quick to declare the Obama honeymoon over this summer. Yet supporters exhilarated by Barack Obama’s stunning win in November 2008 were still willing to cut him a lot of slack. That slack just ran out.
The simplest, most comprehensive health insurance reform — single payer — was off the table before the legislative effort on the matter even started. It was replaced with an amorphous “public option.” David Sirota and others like-minded called this a violation of negotiating 101: compromise comes at the end of the process, not at the beginning.
Now the campaign to enact substantive health care reform has foundered on Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). And on Obama’s refusal to bust heads. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel instructed Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to cut a deal with Lieberman for his vote, even if it meant jettisoning Medicare expansion and a public option — along with cost controls, lifetime benefit caps and drug re-importation. Reid did. So much for the Chicago-style politics Fox News warned about.
There’s a lot more so read it in full.
Then read Victoria Kennedy’s piece in full. Notice a difference?
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.