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Gray Matters: Ted

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.

Despite the sounds and seeming fury of the health care reform debate in the U.S. Senate, it seems to me that it has been missing real passion and commitment from the nebbish Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the too cool and aloof President of the United States, Barack Obama. But what the Senate and the debate has been missing, most of all, is Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

I covered Ted Kennedy for a number of years, including his early days in the Senate as he fought for a place in the leadership, his re-election campaign after the blight of Chappaquiddick and his 1980 run for the presidency. And I’ve talked with other reporters who knew him well. And Teddy’s passion, his personality, his personal and political appeal would have made a difference.

As Senator Tom Harkin, (D, Iowa) has said, “He would lend gravitas to the issue that we’re kind of missing right now.”

Ted Kennedy, who was a young and vibrant 77 until brain cancer killed him on August 25, electrified the Democratic National Convention exactly a year earlier with one of his greatest speeches supporting the election of Obama: ”The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on,” he said, and he looked forward to the health care reform struggle now before the Congress which he said, is “the cause of my life.”

He came to the Senate infrequently during his long illness, once in 2008 to override George Bush’s veto of child health care legislation. And last year he helped break a Republican filibuster which threatened Obama’s first stimulus which Obama should remember.

Last July, Kennedy’s Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) passed and sent to the Senate floor its proposal for health care reform, The Affordable Health Choices Act.

It was relatively clean – 615 pages – and it included a strong public plan called the Community Health Insurance Option with reimbursement rates patterned after Medicare. It would have given workers and their families another choice besides private insurance.

And the Congressional Budget Office blessed it as money-saving. Some liberals complained it did not go far enough, but it was a strong bill with premiums no greater than 12.5 percent of a worker’s income, and with government subsidies for low-income men and women (compared with 17 to 22 percent in the current bill).

Unfortunately, it was overtaken by the more right-wing, insurance industry friendly bill of the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Senator Max Baucus (D, Montana), who has no record fighting for health care. The ranking Republican member, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, said during Kennedy’s absence: ”If Kennedy were here, it would make melding the Finance Committee bill and the HELP Committee bill much easier.”

Of course, Grassley tried to kill any bill and had no intention of supporting real reform. But he had a point. A Washington veteran who used to be a bureau chief told me that Kennedy would not have dismissed the Baucus bill, as Reid did, but would have found a way to work with Baucus and others on his committee including Democrats and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, a fellow New Englander.

Kennedy’s powers of persuasion were formidable, especially when he thundered his commitment on the Senate floor.

The former bureau chief added that Republican Senators Orin Hatch of Utah and John McCain of Arizona, both of whom were close to Kennedy “would never have opened their mouths if he were still here.” Without Kennedy on the offensive, he added, “the Republicans have absolutely framed the debate in a way that could kill the whole thing.”

The Kennedy I knew and watched rarely played defense on the Senate floor. Thus I doubt that he would have permitted the Democrats to remain on the defensive with Reid wondering how far he has to retreat and seeming to care little for what’s in the bill as long as he has the votes to break a filibuster.

Watching Senator Joe Lieberman and other Democrats gum up any chance that at least some parts of the HELP Committee bill would make it to a vote, a Boston editor who became a Kennedy watcher said, “It does make me think that Kennedy could have made a difference. By all accounts his ability to cajole colleagues into line, in some cases by securing their commitments in advance was peerless. It might have worked with Lieberman. You have to believe he would have made a difference.”

A Boston friend who covered Kennedy and is still an active reporter said, “If Teddy had still been in the Senate, I think he would have been able to put down any mini-rebellions and figured how to keep Lieberman in the tent.” It would have been difficult for Lieberman or any Senate Democrat to withstand the kind of buttonholing, cajoling and impassioned appeals Kennedy could make.

Some Republicans who won’t vote for any compromise suggest, hypocritically, that Kennedy would have moved to the right to get a bill. Perhaps, but it’s also likely that Kennedy, because of who he is, could successfully resist deal-breakers like cracking down on abortion rights.

Finally, and most important, Barack Obama owes Ted Kennedy a great deal–including the presidency. And my Boston friend says, “I also think Kennedy would have goosed Obama to expend more political capital on this issue early on, when it would have mattered.”

As it has turned out, virtually everything that smacked of real reform has disappeared in favor of the health insurance companies. They can even get away with raising premiums on account of age or preexisting conditions. Or capping benefits.

Obama said all the right things after Kennedy died. But then he always says all the right things. But neither he nor Reid nor any of Kennedy’s colleagues on the HELP Committee have moved to pass the cause of his life.


The President has become a failed BRAND. Health care reform by Tom Daschle has pushed the share prices of insurance industry companies to new highs. Do you feel betrayed? Obama could have been a great President, but alas, it is not to be.

Unlike the first commenter, at this point, I refuse to speak of Obama's presidency in the past tense.
Ted Kennedy was a powerful legislator in the waning days of his career, but for many years he was mediocre at best. But, bearing the name of America's most powerful political family, Kennedy was allowed to grow into the job.
Barack Obama, having inherited an economic train wreck, two wars and a bitterly divided Congress, should at least be provided with some of the same courtesy.

I agree with jack-of-all-thumbs. May I suggest that everyone needs to take a deep breath as Paul Krugman suggests in his opinion piece in Thursday's New York Times Yes, President Obama hasn't lived up to our expectations. But, perhaps our expectations were irrational.

I felt the day that Senator Kennedy died that any real chance for hope and change probably died as well. It was a sad day for our country.

It may have been his years in politics that made Ted Kennedy such a persuasive voice in the Senate, but whatever the reason, he knew how to play the game and was successful in changing minds. His passion was behind every speech.

That is what I see lacking in Obama. He is a outstanding orator, extremely intelligent, and I think he truly believes what he says.
Sadly, it ends there. He does not have the stomach for the 'get down in the dirt and' fight. He is, perhaps, too intellectual for his own and the countries good.

He may achieve that passion to win no matter what the odds, but it is sorely lacking now.

The grammar coach will call me out. I should have said, "AN" outstanding. Tsk, tsk !!

Thank you for articulating exactly what I've been ruminating about ever since it became clear that there is no political will to make real changes. We still won't be covered for pre-existing conditions, there's no real competition, but there sure is a lot of whining.

Gravitas is what's lacking, indeed.

I've been mumbling about the failed Obama presidency since the first appointments to his economic team were announced. I knew then that he lacked the will to fight his way out of the corners the business community would continue to back him into. You cite Kenned's "buttonholing, cajoling and impassioned appeals." There's been so little of that--or what used to be called arm-twisting by effective Presidents, that one might wonder who is actually governing, between Obama's polished speeches.

Sadly disappointed in this whole fiasco of supposed health care reform. A bail-out/giveway to the insurance companies is NOT what the majority of democrats wanted, and like myself, many of us will NOT vote for Obama again, period.

Does anyone actually believe that after those 2 terms with Bush & Cheney, that there's some kinda' magic that will put things right? Please, they had 8 years that were, to put it mildly, not so good for Americans. Let's at least give our president more than one year to make some changes. Dee

Seems early for an election, but cast my vote with Mona and jack-of-all-thumbs. There's a lot of history left to be written in Obama's presidency. As for getting "down in the dirt" to get the job done, an effective officer sits high in the saddle so he can see above the dust of the march.

Healthcare reform pushes every emotional button and strains everyone's rationality, which makes us shortsighted. Does anyone really think we'll get this thing right the first time? We are not the end of history.

As soon as I heard Kennedy's medical diagnosis I knew it was unlikely he'd be around to guide a truly strong health care bill through the Senate. Am not surprised no one else has filled the void though I had expected more from Obama. I think it would be misguided to write Obama off so early in his Presidency.

A friend forwarded this website to me. Thank you.
I'm impressed with the comments- they seem to be informed and helpful in moving understanding of this process forward.

I will only add that watching the ideas, the trade-offs, the discussion, our elected members in the House and in the Senate have done in some more exposed manner than I am used to has been both humanizing and a little like a formalized dance. We need to get better and learn the steps of this dance.

I understand that the new Senate bill not only has taken out Kennedy's community (public option), it has also stripped his proposal for long term care, the so called CLASS act. If anyone know for sure, let us know.

As many have already stated, I am dispirited about the health care bill as well. I do think, however,that we all had enormous expectations of Obama. When he made his acceptance speech in Chicago, I noticed how small his shoulders, and how large were the problems we were placing there.

I think hearing from us, his constituents, and especially, those of us who worked so hard for his election is critical. How can we give up on this man, after less than a year in office? And yet, we must communicate our concerns and disppointments to his office. Obama must hear from us.

It's Monday-Dec.21, 2009 and its done!
A Health Care bill watered down by two people:
Lieberman and Nelson.
I agree, if Kennedy were alive they would have never have gotten away with it.

As a note: The savngs within Medicare is reducing the payment for services to:MD's, Hospitals and other medical services.

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