Where Do We Go From Here?

White House photo.

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Conceding the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, Edward Kennedy told the delegates at the Democratic National Convention:

We cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must—we must not surrender—we must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.

The president, the vice-president, the members of Congress have a medical plan that meets their needs in full, and whenever senators and representatives catch a little cold, the Capitol physician will see them immediately, treat them promptly, fill a prescription on the spot. We do not get a bill even if we ask for it, and when do you think was the last time a member of Congress asked for a bill from the federal government? And I say again, as I have before, if health insurance is good enough for the president, the vice-president, the Congress of the United States, then it’s good enough for you and every family in America.

Nearly 30 years later, that dream—of health insurance for every American—is still unfulfilled, and now Kennedy won’t be around to lend his considerable political heft to the continuing debate. His seat in the senate will be empty for six months before Massachusetts can hold a special election to fill it. (Unless Massachusetts Dems change the law.) The Democrats will have 59 votes (if the ailing Robert Byrd is healthy enough) in the Senate, and the Republicans will be able to filibuster anything and everything they want. When the seat’s finally filled, it’ll be well into 2010, an election year. No one expects sweeping health care reform to be passed in an election year.

Even without Kennedy, the Democrats are at a high-water mark in their political power. For sixty years, the party has tried and failed to bring health care to all Americans. Everyone, inside and outside the party, thinks this year may be health care reform’s best chance yet. If Senate Republicans stand firm and filibuster, Democrats’ only option to pass health care will be the budget reconciliation process—a parliamentary maneuver that would allow them to pass a bill with a simple majority. Will the Democrats muster the courage to move forward through reconciliation, even in the face of what are sure to be fierce protests from their GOP colleagues?

During the election campaign last year, Teddy and most of the rest of the Kennedy clan made a big show of passing the family torch to Barack Obama. “This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama, for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on,” Kennedy told the delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

Can Obama bear the burden? His style is not Kennedy’s—he’s more careful, more moderate, less emotional. Obama can sure give a speech, but it’s not a Ted Kennedy speech. Obama talks about common sense and working together and bipartisanship. Teddy spoke about doing the right thing. As the Boston Globe‘s Charlie Pierce wrote in 2003, Kennedy’s best speeches were eulogies—his greatest from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, over Bobby’s coffin, “in a voice like that of someone choking on blood”:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

Teddy Kennedy’s funeral will be a huge moment in the history of the Democratic party and the nation. What will his chosen torchbearer say about him? And how will he carry forward Kennedy’s legacy?


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