The Urgency Of Ted Kennedy's Message

by Jonathan Cohn | August 26, 2008

All through the summer, members of Ted Kennedy’s committee staff in Washington have been feverishly preparing for an all-out effort to enact universal health care next year.

They’ve been meeting with counterparts on other committees and bringing in the key stakeholders--unions, insurers, employers, doctors--to get a sense where everybody stands. They’ve also been looking closely at how Massachusetts lawmakers passed health care reform for their state, on the theory that a similar strategy might work in the U.S. Congress.

And, of course, they’ve been keeping their boss in the loop.

Yes, Kennedy has brain cancer. Yes, the medical treatments keep him in Boston. Yes, it is a difficult fight. Still, there has been work to do--just as there was on Monday, in Denver. “Nothing,” Kennedy told the crowd, “was going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight.”

It was a sentimental message. It also carried a sense of urgency--about not just health care reform but the future of liberalism, as well.

Kennedy, after all, is one of the last living connections to a time when liberalism was not a dirty word in American politics--when it was acceptable, even advantageous, for a politician to don the mantle. His brother John Kennedy famously did it in 1960, when, during his campaign for the presidency, he gave a speech accepting the endorsement of the Liberal Party in New York:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?" If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of "Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people--their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties--someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."

Proud, for sure, but obviously anxious, too. JFK was defending liberalism from its critics, who were already numerous and influential. In the decades that followed, these critics would carry the day politically, fueled by the backlash against Democratic policies on race, taxes, and national security.

In the 1970s and again in the 1990s, two Democrats would capture the White House. But one would run as an ideologically ambivalent reformer and the other would present himself as a “New Democrat” challenging old party orthodoxies. Unabashed liberals they were not.

Ted Kennedy, to his credit, has never wavered. Year in, year out, he has fought for the same set of causes--higher pay for workers, an end to discrimination, health care for everybody. He has preached those causes when his party was in power and he has preached them when it wasn’t. And he has managed to get things done. Raising the minimum wage. Bringing health insurance to kids. Slapping sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime. The list goes on and on.

Kennedy was provoking the right-wing attack machine before anybody had even heard of Bill Clinton--although, historians will surely note, he was never reluctant to reach across the aisle. He counts ideological counterparts like Republican Senator Orrin Hatch as both good friends and frequent collaborators. On many occasions--the No Child Left Behind Act and Medicare drug bill, for example--Kennedy’s willingness to compromise has disappointed and angered his supporters. But it has always been a means to an end for him: Take the best deal you can get, then come right back for more. His devotion to liberalism has remained true.

And yet one thing Kennedy could never do was move the country back to where it was when he started in politics. Liberalism needs government, because government is how the people, acting together, provide for the safety and well-being of their most vulnerable members. When JFK was president, most people still believed the government was capable of doing the right thing--a legacy of Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the role Washington played in rescuing Americans during the Great Depression. The feeling lingered long enough to make possible, under Lyndon Johnson, both the Great Society and civil rights legislation.

But Americans, on the whole, don’t think that way anymore. This is a county that has returned to its natural predisposition: an instinctive skepticism of the public sector.

Perhaps Ted Kennedy might have been able to change that if he’d ever become president himself, as he once hoped to do. But his own personal failures made that impossible. And so even as Kennedy has continued his hard work in Congress, arguably making a larger impact than either of his more famous brothers, he has had to bide his time, waiting for somebody else to come along and restore the public's faith in his governing philosophy.

Bill Clinton began that work, in fits and starts, but the reclamation project had far to go when he left office in 2001. (Ironically, George W. Bush may have propelled it along farther, if only by sullying conservatism’s name, too.) Now Kennedy has turned to Barack Obama, in what looks--at least at this point in time--like a pretty big risk. It is not clear that Obama will win the election, let alone that he can restore public faith in liberal ideals.

On Monday in Denver, Kennedy once again did his best to help Obama's cause. And, should Obama win, Kennedy has promised he will be ready in January--with a proposal for universal health care in one hand and a popular mandate to enact it in the other.

But universal health care, like public affection for liberalism, is not something Kennedy can produce on his own. He will need help--from his activist allies, from his political party, from his presidential candidate. And he cannot afford to wait.

Update: For a terrific alternative take, see reader "williamyard" in the Comments section.

--Jonathan Cohn

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