Ted Kennedy and the health care debate

If he had lived, Kennedy may have been able to bring about a bipartisan reform bill and compromise among Democrats

Ted Kennedy and the healthcare debateUPDATE: When I wrote the post below, I was inspired by the words of a close friend and colleague of Ted Kennedy’s, John McCain, who last Sunday pointed out the need to hear Kennedy’s voice in the healthcare debate. Unfortunately, Kennedy’s voice was silenced during the night when the long-serving Massachussets senator died at his home on Cape Cod. It is important to remember that Ted Kennedy was perhaps the most influential Senator of all time. Unlike his brothers John and Robert, Ted Kennedy loved the Senate and preferred it to any other public office. In 1980, he ran for president but his heart was not in it. He was a champion of the poor, the underprivileged, and the forgotten. There is virtually no social policy passed by Congress over the past 40 years that does not have Teddy’s imprint on it. His charm and his idealism brought many to his side, even opponents who did not share his goals. Above all, Kennedy should be remembered as a man who valued public service as the highest calling. Many tributes will follow but I saw him for what he was at this crucial moment in history—a leader who could have made a difference. Like John and Bobby, Teddy will be missed.

Over the past two weeks, two news items have successfully cut through the US health care debate and both involved America’s most famous family—the Kennedys. On August 11, Eunice Kennedy Shriver passed away at the age of 88. She will be remembered as the founder of the Special Olympics which now involve over 1 million disabled athletes. Robert Kennedy once said of his sister that “she was the Kennedy we all wanted to be” and, judging by the eulogies, she was perhaps the most successful and least controversial member of that illustrious family. Then, last week, cancer-stricken Senator Edward Kennedy sent a letter to legislators in Massachusetts requesting that a change be made to state law to allow for a replacement senator be named quickly should a sudden vacancy—in all likelihood, his own seat—occur. Otherwise, a special election would take place within a five-month period and the ailing senator does not want Massachusetts to be deprived of a vote on a looming healthcare bill. Never mind that state Democrats had passed the current legislation to prevent then-Governor Mitt Romney from appointing a replacement for John Kerry, who was running for president at the time; the Kennedy letter brought to light the deteriorating state of the senator’s health and in so doing may be reminding the public about the importance of this moment in history.

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday, John McCain made the startling claim that if Kennedy was healthy and active in the Senate, the possibility of a bipartisan reform bill would be greater. It is not hard to agree with the Arizona senator, if only because Kennedy may have contributed more than any other senator in history to advancing social policy in the United States. Granted, his longevity is part of the explanation, but many prominent Republicans seem to agree with McCain. McCain and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, two conservative legislators, have worked on a number of bipartisan bills through their years in the Senate with this very liberal senator. Though Teddy has not always been a paragon of virtue in his private life, few can question that he has steadfastly stood for the ideals fought for by his brothers, John and Robert Kennedy. His love for the Senate far surpassed that of his brothers—and it has served him and the country well .

Through the years, Senator Kennedy has fought a number of demons of his own making and has never succeeded in erasing the memory of Mary Jo Kopechne`s death from the public conscience. Yet, by courageously coping with numerous family tragedies and in the building his enviable record of public service, he has achieved a certain rehabilitation and respect in the minds of Americans. He may be a polarizing figure, but at the end of day, he has attained a standing that would make his brothers proud. It should come as no surprise then that President Obama, who is vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, would visit with the senator. With the health care debate raging on, a visit with the strongest proponent of healthcare reform cannot hurt the president as he works to shore up his support among the progressive base of the Democratic party, which is still miffed at Obama over his lukewarm support for the public option. Even if Kennedy’s health is failing, he may be able to inspire and energize a push for compromise among Democrats. The end result may fall short of Obama’s initial goals, but it can substantially improve on the status quo. You may recall the last time Kennedy gave a boost to Obama was during the primary season of last year when he endorsed the upstart Illinois Senator, bestowing on him a legitimacy that proved to be crucial at that stage of the campaign. If there is progress when Congress resumes its work in September, do not be surprised to see Kennedy’s fingerprints on the healthcare bill that emerges from it.

The continued fixation on the Kennedys has a lot to do with how Americans view their country. Americans value the family, they do not fear adventure, they are often inspired by tragedy, and they cherish the ideals that have built their country. The Kennedy family, as imperfect as it is, represents a lot of that America. We remember mostly John and Robert who, in the course of their commitment to public service, were murdered in the prime of their lives. But it was Teddy who was blessed with what was taken from his younger brothers—old age. And in this late stage of his life, he has rekindled in his own way the spirit of Camelot. The words of John McCain last Sunday paid tribute to that spirit. More than ever and at this critical debate on health care, where ideals and honourable compromise must converge, it is important that we hear Teddy Kennedy’s voice.