Kennedyâ€™s Legacy Worth Fighting For
As the final, somber sounds of the bugle playing taps echoed over the hills, we put Edward Kennedy to his final rest. The question now is whether we will fulfill the charge that he left us with: to make affordable, quality health care a right for all Americans, not a privilege for a few.
This was, as Kennedy said, the “cause of his life.” It was the one thing he asked of Barack Obama before providing his invaluable endorsement and support in the primaries–that Obama take up comprehensive health care reform in his first year. It was so central to the summary of his life’s work that he gave to the pope in his last letter. And under the leadership of Sen. Chris Dodd, it is expressed in the legislation that the committee he chaired–the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions–passed in his absence. Now the question is whether the rest of his colleagues will take up this challenge.
He was not even lowered into the grave before the revisionists started, with Republican after Republican from Orrin Hatch to John McCain lamenting that Kennedy would not be around to provide the “reasonable” liberal to cut the deal, jettisoning the public insurance option, cutting the subsidies to poor working families and making the plan “acceptable” to reasonable Republicans.
Don’t believe a word of it. The fact is that until last year, as Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future points out, Kennedy’s health care bill was known as Medicare for All. Kennedy favored a single-payer system, knowing that the insurance companies profited by spending billions figuring out how to insure only those who were healthy.
So the bill that came out of Kennedy’s committee, with a public insurance option to compete with private insurance companies and subsidies for lower wage-families so that insurance would be affordable, already represents his compromise.
Second, the sad reality is Republicans have committed themselves to stopping health care reform; they believe it might “break” Obama, in Sen. Jim DeMint’s words, and help revive the sinking Republican prospects. So even the supposed “reasonable Republicans” enmeshed in negotiations with Max Baucus have produced nothing but delay. One of them, Sen. Mike Enzi of Nevada, boasts of his ability to delay any progress. Another, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, peddles the vile “death panel” lies that reveal his bad faith.
President Obama and Democrats in the Senate need a little of Kennedy’s backbone and fighting spirit. They should be taking lessons from a man who stated his principles and his beliefs clearly and was willing to fight for them fiercely. Kennedy did not win recognition as the soul of the Senate, or the voice of an era, merely by cutting backroom deals. He won recognition for his willingness to take on very powerful private interests, call them out in public and fight for working and poor people who otherwise had few champions.
I was a student activist in North Carolina in the early 1960s when I first heard the young Sen. Edward Kennedy on the radio. He stopped me in my tracks as I crossed campus because it was the first time I had heard a white man describe Jim Crow segregation as “morally wrong.” He was relentless in his push for civil and human rights after he took up the cause. Once segregation was ended and discrimination outlawed, he turned his attention to economic injustice.
The Senate should honor the legacy and service of its colleague and friend not by fine speeches, but by clear action. Democrats should join together to pass Kennedy’s health care bill, unite as one to overcome the Republican filibuster and pass real health care reform. That won’t complete the work, as Sen. Kennedy would be the first to say, but it would be a dramatic improvement in this basic right for Americans from young to old, insured or uninsured.
Edward Kennedy was the greatest senator of his time because he was unrelenting, creative and persistent, and he knew when to push. Now is the time to push, not delay. The many campaigns of Sen. Edward Kennedy are over now. But the cause remains, the hope does not die, and it is time to move one step closer to the dream.