Kennedy's impossible dream? I don't think so

Nobody knows if he'd have demanded a public health care option, but he wouldn't have surrendered before the fight


Joan Walsh
August 30, 2009 12:30AM (UTC)

In all the crazy arguments about Sen. Ted Kennedy's life and legacy, one thread stands out: The idea that his memorial could create a so-called "Wellstone effect" – named for the right-wing hysteria over alleged liberal excess at the progressive senator's 2002 funeral. In this fantasy of liberal misbehavior, mainly peddled by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, rowdy lefty partisans would stun the country with ideological attacks on Kennedy's loyal GOP friends, and turn voters against President Obama as well as Kennedy's key cause, health care reform.

Will anyone ever say, "Sorry, that was a stupid idea? That was never going to happen?" I like Politico's Ben Smith and his reporting, generally, but he carried mouth-breathing GOP extremists' water with his piece "framing" this Democratic dilemma (and Lord, even in death, Democrats have dilemmas. Will the MSM ever let my people go?) Who gives a damn what Limbaugh, Hannity and Instapundit think about the way Democrats should grieve?

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OK, rant over. Just for today, I'll try to avoid attacks on Republicans and conservative Democrats, in Kennedy's honor. I will admit: Yes, Kennedy modeled an approach to politics that got people who differed to see what they had in common, and sometimes that led to extraordinary compromises on behalf of social progress. Just for today (maybe for the weekend), I'll extend Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch the benefit of the doubt, and believe that maybe Kennedy would have found some way to forge a compromise health care reform bill.

But also, just for today (and the weekend), I want to ask, respectfully, that liberals who insist Democrats must give up the public option in the health care debate before there's a single vote, please stop telling us they're channelling Teddy Kennedy. I want to call out those liberals – my friend Jonathan Alter; ABC's George Stephanopolous; the not-always-liberal (in his own self-concept) Chris Matthews – and say: Why give up now? Wouldn't Kennedy have continued to fight, at least until he had concrete proof that he couldn't find 60 votes for the public option?

I got into a friendly but somewhat heated debate on this Friday with Matthews and Alter, and it was two-against-one, with me playing the role of the loony lefty who'll fight to stop a health care bill if it doesn't include the public option. I have no power to stop a health care bill, and at any rate, I haven't made that commitment: All I know is it doesn't seem like Ted Kennedy to lead with your chin, to tell Republicans exactly what you're prepared to give up in legislation, exactly what Senate measures (reconciliation) you're prepared to forego, in advance of the battle. This is a battle, people, and we may lose, but why surrender before we fight?

Before we fight with decency and compassion, and with an eye toward forging common ground, if possible, with Republicans. Sure. But nothing I heard in this long, moving celebration of Kennedy's life made me think he'd be leading the charge to compromise before he had to, and any liberal who wants to honor his memory ought to at least think about that. I'd remind people who disagree to remember that Kennedy advised President Clinton to bypass Republicans, if he had to, to get his ill-starred health care reform passed. Why do we think he'd say anything different today?

By far the most moving moment of the weekend for me was Ted Kennedy Jr.'s memory of his dad helping him up a hill, in the ice and snow, after he lost his leg to cancer as a 12 year old boy. We can make it up that hill together. And I loved hearing "The Impossible Dream" (also my father's favorite song) on Friday night. The line I remember best? "No matter how hopeless, no matter how far." It would be wrong for me to pretend to channel Kennedy; I simply intend to honor his memory by continuing up the hill.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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