Teddy Kennedy and the art of the deal

Would the public option pass if he were around? Maybe not: The Senate's liberal conscience was also a horse-trader

Published August 27, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., accepts the applause before President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare reform in the East Room of the White House in Washington Thursday, March 5, 2009.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., accepts the applause before President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare reform in the East Room of the White House in Washington Thursday, March 5, 2009.

If politics worked like Hollywood, you would know how the next few weeks would go. After Ted Kennedy's death, his friends and allies — overcoming their loss — would rededicate themselves to finishing his life's work and guaranteeing universal health coverage for all Americans. His Republican adversaries — chastened by their memories of a man they came to love no matter how much they disagreed with him — would fall in line, too. And as the screen faded to black at the end of the movie, with a mournful bagpipe tune playing in the background, a caption would inform the audience that Congress overwhelmingly approved healthcare legislation in Kennedy's name.

The day the liberal icon died, it was easy to see that was the version progressives hoped would play out. "Today, we pick up the torch and recommit ourselves to health insurance reform," a top House Democrat, Chris Van Hollen, said. "Let us continue his cause," Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern urged. "Let us take action this year to pass healthcare reform." Nearly every group and every lawmaker working to pass healthcare reform had the same message: Let's go finish Teddy's legacy and do this.

But whether the reality winds up being quite that inspirational might take a while to figure out. Ignore the mathematical problem that Kennedy's death presents; he hasn't been in Washington for a vote since late April, and Democrats already expected to have to find support from Republicans on key issues instead of being able to count on Kennedy to provide their 60th vote to stop GOP filibusters. Besides, Massachusetts might soon change its state laws to allow a temporary replacement to be seated. "I can't imagine that, if it comes down to it, that the political leadership of the state of Massachusetts is going to deny Ted Kennedy's greatest dream by not having somebody represent Massachusetts," one Democratic consultant told Salon.

Even so, the fact that the immediate calculations about Kennedy's death hinged on Senate vote counts and procedural rules underscored another lesson from his life in politics. Yes, Kennedy was the liberal lion of the Senate, but he was also — as Republican after Republican took pains to point out Wednesday — a legislator who constantly cut deals with his political opponents to find just enough common ground to pass a bill.

"In the current climate of today's United States Senate, it is rare to find opportunities where both sides can come together and work in the middle to craft a solution for our country's problems," Utah Republican Orrin Hatch said in a statement that looked back at the legislation he and Kennedy had worked on while running the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "Ted Kennedy, with all of his ideological verbosity and idealism, was a rare person who at times could put aside differences and look for common solutions."

The GOP's nostalgia for Kennedy is partly self-serving; Republicans had been talking, even before Kennedy died, as if they'd all be on board with healthcare legislation if only he were involved in the negotiations, but there's no reason to assume that's actually true. Kennedy wouldn't necessarily have endorsed whatever emerges from the bipartisan talks under way on the Finance Committee on healthcare reform, nor would he have supported a compromise that he felt gave up too much.

But Democrats hoping his memory helps them break through all the hurdles the White House faces are probably romanticizing Kennedy's legacy in their own way, too. While the Hollywood version might have all the opposition to reform melting away, the lesson Senate Democrats appear to be reading in Kennedy's career is to take what they can get now, even if it means they have to tinker with the reform package down the road.

Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd, who may take over as chairman of HELP panel, said he hoped Kennedy's death might inspire his colleagues to cut a deal. "I hope [Kennedy's death] would remind people to calm down," Dodd told reporters Wednesday. "My hope is that this will maybe cause people to take a breath, step back, and start talking with each other again in more civil tones about what needs to be done, because that's what Teddy would do. He had passion about the issue, but there was no one better in trying to bring people together to get a job done."

Kennedy believed, deeply, in the need for universal health insurance; he first spoke to the Senate about it in 1969, 40 years ago, and made one of his last public appearances in Washington at a White House summit in March to push for Obama's proposal. Progressives who cite him as a hero for the healthcare cause tend to look at his underlying passion and broad policy goals, which they shared.

But at the same time, Kennedy — the consummate legislator — showed a willingness to work with Republicans that belied his reputation as a liberal champion, especially over the last decade. He gave crucial support early on to the Bush administration's proposal to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare (though he wound up criticizing the way the final legislation emerged from Congress). He teamed up with George W. Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, as well, though Democrats now nearly uniformly loathe the education program. In 2006 and 2007, during pitched battles over immigration reform in the Senate, Kennedy voted time and time again against amendments offered by liberal colleagues and backed by labor unions, in the name of preserving a carefully crafted compromise he had worked out with Republican John McCain. All along, his message to allies who were disappointed that they couldn't get everything into the bill they wanted was that some progress was better than none.

On the healthcare bill, the draft that Kennedy's HELP committee passed this year included a public insurance option, but not the single-payer system many progressives might have preferred. Yes, Kennedy was dying as the discussion on Capitol Hill moved toward ditching the public option, but if he had strongly opposed that change, he and his aides could have made that known. Instead, he kept quiet, recognizing legislative horse-trading for what it was. "Kennedy knew the work of health-care reform was not for one Congress, but for many," former Sen. Harris Wofford told the Washington Post Wednesday. "My sense of Senator Kennedy is that he was always more interested in getting something done than in getting everything done," the Democratic consultant told Salon.

Which appears to be the way the Senate is moving on healthcare this year, as well — pass something, even if it's not everything. The natural sentimentality and clubbiness of the institution means the reform bill will almost certainly be named for Kennedy — but it also means his former colleagues there will find, in his death, more reason to do whatever it takes to get legislation out of Congress, so they can say they got it done in his memory. The chances of passing some sort of bill may have gone up after Kennedy's death, but the chances that progressives will like the bill haven't necessarily improved.

Listening to the debate over healthcare this fall, you're certain to hear people on both sides saying they're arguing for doing things the way Kennedy would have wanted. The fundamental question they'll be asking is: Would the passionate liberal Kennedy have won out, or the pragmatic deal maker Kennedy? Sadly, now, there's no longer any way to know.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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