Liberalism lost its most reliable champion with the passing of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy this week. The senator virtually defined American liberalism for his 47 years in public office and it is not easy to see who will step into his role. But before his body has even been laid to rest, some of his colleagues are hoping to use the senator’s death to push through ObamaCare. Several senators have urged that legislation be named in Kennedy’s honor in hopes that his Senate colleagues, including Republicans, be persuaded to pass a bill quickly.
Universal health care was always Kennedy’s passion — unfinished business from the expansion of the welfare state that began with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and carried through to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. For years he championed government-guaranteed health care for all Americans, sponsoring his first major bill to enact a government health care system in 1971. But only twice during his long tenure was universal health care within reach. Both times he was denied the opportunity to play the leading role in achieving that end; first by the Clinton administration, which tried to push through its own legislation under the stewardship of then-first lady Hillary Clinton, and finally by the cancer that ultimately took his life.
For all his reputation as liberal icon or conservative bete noir, Kennedy was never the uncompromising ideologue that friends or enemies fashioned him. He was, instead, the consummate legislator — willing to compromise in order to achieve what was possible, even if it meant a half loaf when he would have preferred a whole. For that reason alone, the absence of his hand in fashioning health care reform now has left the Democrats in a more perilous position, which is why they will try to exploit his name to push through a bill.
But attaching Kennedy’s name to a health care bill won’t make up for his absence in forging bipartisan support for legislation. As liberal as Kennedy was, he also understood that bipartisanship was crucial to achieve major social change, which is why he was willing to work across the aisle on major legislation. Among his many legislative accomplishments are bills that bear not only his name but that of Republican co-sponsors, from former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (the State Children’s Health Insurance Program) to Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (the Family Opportunity Act) to New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg (the No Child Left Behind Act). But ObamaCare — even if it is renamed in Ted Kennedy’s honor — still lacks the Kennedy touch for compromise.
Had Kennedy been healthy enough to be an active participant in the recent health care debate, he might well have persuaded his fellow Democrats that their idea of going it alone on ObamaCare was shortsighted, even if they had the votes to pass their own bill without Republican support. Far better, he might have argued, to make changes to include Republicans even if it meant a less expansive bill — and he might well have succeeded. As Hatch observed recently in an interview on the subject, Kennedy was "the only Democrat who could really move all the Democrats’ special interests into coming along with a bipartisan approach," but in his absence, Hatch said, Kennedy’s staff had written "a one-sided, partisan bill."
With Kennedy’s death, ObamaCare, too, may be short-lived. Popular opposition to government-mandated health care is rising by the day, and Democrats have now lost not only their party’s leader on health care issues but a crucial vote to bring legislation to the floor. With Kennedy’s passing, Democrats’ majority has been reduced to 59, one vote short of the necessary 60 votes to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster. Since Massachusetts law requires that a special election to replace Kennedy be held no sooner than 145 days, Democrat efforts to ram through a bill before the end of the year will be more difficult.
Nonetheless, Senate Democrats may yet get their wish since their party also controls the Massachusetts legislature. The legislature could overturn the state law requiring a special election and hand power to appoint a successor to the Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. Like other Democrats, Kennedy originally supported the legislation requiring a special election but, according to a letter sent from his deathbed to legislators last week, reversed this stand. But such maneuvering will not honor Kennedy’s legacy, nor will passing a deeply flawed, unpopular, and wholly partisan health care bill even if it bears the Kennedy name.