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.