Liberalism lost its most reliable champion with the passing of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy this week. The senator virtually defined American liberalism for his 47 years in public office and it is not easy to see who will step into his role. But before his body has even been laid to rest, some of his colleagues are hoping to use the senator's death to push through ObamaCare. Several senators have urged that legislation be named in Kennedy's honor in hopes that his Senate colleagues, including Republicans, be persuaded to pass a bill quickly.
Universal health care was always Kennedy's passion -- unfinished business from the expansion of the welfare state that began with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and carried through to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. For years he championed government-guaranteed health care for all Americans, sponsoring his first major bill to enact a government health care system in 1971. But only twice during his long tenure was universal health care within reach. Both times he was denied the opportunity to play the leading role in achieving that end; first by the Clinton administration, which tried to push through its own legislation under the stewardship of then-first lady Hillary Clinton, and finally by the cancer that ultimately took his life.
For all his reputation as liberal icon or conservative bete noir, Kennedy was never the uncompromising ideologue that friends or enemies fashioned him. He was, instead, the consummate legislator -- willing to compromise in order to achieve what was possible, even if it meant a half loaf when he would have preferred a whole. For that reason alone, the absence of his hand in fashioning health care reform now has left the Democrats in a more perilous position, which is why they will try to exploit his name to push through a bill.
Had Kennedy been healthy enough to be an active participant in the recent health care debate, he might well have persuaded his fellow Democrats that their idea of going it alone on ObamaCare was shortsighted, even if they had the votes to pass their own bill without Republican support. Far better, he might have argued, to make changes to include Republicans even if it meant a less expansive bill -- and he might well have succeeded. As Hatch observed recently in an interview on the subject, Kennedy was "the only Democrat who could really move all the Democrats' special interests into coming along with a bipartisan approach," but in his absence, Hatch said, Kennedy's staff had written "a one-sided, partisan bill."
Nonetheless, Senate Democrats may yet get their wish since their party also controls the Massachusetts legislature. The legislature could overturn the state law requiring a special election and hand power to appoint a successor to the Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick. Like other Democrats, Kennedy originally supported the legislation requiring a special election but, according to a letter sent from his deathbed to legislators last week, reversed this stand. But such maneuvering will not honor Kennedy's legacy, nor will passing a deeply flawed, unpopular, and wholly partisan health care bill even if it bears the Kennedy name.