Monday, July 27, 2009

Once There Was a Spot, For One Brief Shining Moment...

Senator Edward M. Kennedy [D, Mass] (above from 2007) has lived six months longer than his original prognosis. Will he survive long enough to see "The cause of my life" come to pass?

My feelings about Sen. Edward M. Kennedy [D, Mass] are always in flux, depending on what I've most recently read or seen. Under the word 'enigma', you'll find Ted Kennedy. He's either the greatest legislator the nation has ever produced, or he's a bungling, bloated windbag of wealth and privilege. I'm sure he probably really falls somewhere in between [although I suspect closer to the 'greatest' than to the 'windbag']. On this blog, I've lambasted him and I've also linked to a great, great seven-part series on Teddy in the Boston Globe from earlier this year. I can also heartily recommend on-demand the HBO documentary Teddy: In His Own Words. It's the most I've ever heard him speak about Chappaquiddick. It also has some chilling audio, including never-before-heard [at least by me] taped communication between the White House radio room and the White House on-the-ground handler in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, confirming that President Kennedy has died. There's also some audio from the Nixon Tapes of Nixon telling aides to pin the 1972 attempted assassination of presidential candidate Gov. George Wallace [D, Ala] on a Kennedy supporter regardless of the evidence.

Since that documentary is the most recent, I'm feeling love for Teddy right now. The fact that - by most accounts - the man probably won't survive the year is probably playing a role, too. Let's face it: Teddy is the only link my generation had to the 'living' Kennedy mystique. While I'm pretty sure I was conceived around the time Bobby was killed, Teddy is the only Kennedy brother I've ever known. Not personally, obviously, but nonetheless I could always feel tied to the '60s and Camelot and Bobby through watching Ted slosh his way through his life.

I remember the surge in popularity that hit much of the country in late-1979, when Kennedy formally announced the obvious: he would challenge President Carter in the 1980 primaries. What had been a dull and lackluster Democratic gallows walk [with Carter's approval rating in the proverbial toilet], all of a sudden Kennedy injected electricity. The Democratic party would be the winner, either way: if Kennedy defeated an incumbent President, not even Ronald Reagan would be able to defeat him. If Carter managed to fight off Kennedy, then he would be energized and battle-tested to go up against Reagan.

Obviously, not quite. Kennedy was sunk by a front-page story on Chappaquiddick in the New York Times on the eve of a huge slate of northeastern primaries, the obvious frost in his marriage to Joan, and his support for universal health care which Carter successfully equated in the public mind with socialism. Far from being energized, though, Carter squandered away his mid-summer lead over Reagan by Labor Day.

Many believe it was the health care issue that ultimately undid Kennedy in 1980. Which brings me [after one hell of a preamble] to the topic of my blog. It is more than ironic that - as the nation finally has the debate that Kennedy has urged upon it for more than 30 years - Kennedy is too ill to participate in the day-to-day battle over health care legislation. And, if you don't believe that Kennedy is still powerful enough to have an impact when healthy, why don't you ask Senator Clinton how her campaign for President recovered from Kennedy's shocking endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008?

Today, Kennedy is very, very sick. By most accounts, he spends all of his days at his house on Cape Cod. The woman who probably saved his life nearly 20 years ago, his wife Vicki, prepares a packet of news clippings for Kennedy each morning so that he can keep up with the health care debate. If there's a hearing going on in Washington, Kennedy reportedly watches it on his laptop.
As Congress and the man he helped to put in the White House wrestle with historic legislation to give every American access to quality health care, Kennedy is sidelined, battling brain cancer instead of reveling in the culmination of his legislative career.

His son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy [D, RI] has tearfully told reporters, "[Kennedy] has lived for this day when America would finally extend this right to every citizen. There's no doubt if he could, he would be here in the thick of this."

The younger Kennedy is quick to point out, however, that his father's not dead yet. Exerting what influence he can from his sickbed, Ted Kennedy advises his aides in Washington over the phone. He has made himself the poster child of what he calls "my life's cause," and is using his illness in a final press for universal health care.

At 77 years of age, Kennedy has outlasted medical expectations since doctors diagnosed a malignant tumor last spring, and by all accounts intends to expend every last bit of his political capital to deliver the bill he feels he will be most remembered for. Democratic leaders plan to bring him physically back to the Senate floor later this year in a wheelchair, or a bed if necessary, to cast his vote for health care reform.

Citing his own sophisticated course of medical treatment for brain cancer - risky surgery at Duke University Medical Center to remove part of the tumor, proton-beam radiation at Massachusetts General Hospital and multiple rounds of chemotherapy - Kennedy has talked about the health care enjoyed by the rich. "My wife, Vicki, and I have worried about many things, but not whether we could afford my care and treatment," Kennedy wrote in an essay published in last week's Newsweek. "I have enjoyed the best medical care money (and a good insurance policy) can buy. . . . Every American should be able to get the same treatment that U.S. senators are entitled to....We're almost there."

Kennedy's aggressive cancer is bringing a sense of urgency to a famously slow-moving Congress, with friends on both sides of the aisle mindful of passing a bill in time for him to see it signed. The last time Kennedy made it to the Capitol was April. In June, he missed passage of his groundbreaking measure to regulate tobacco. This month, Kennedy, who heads the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, could not participate in the crucial drafting of his health care legislation.

Those close to him say he has his good days and bad. His well-informed staff is respected on Capitol Hill, and in Kennedy's absence enjoys unusually direct access to some lawmakers. But Kennedy's aides, who have fiercely defended their boss' bill, have not been in a position to broker compromises and have caused tension at times, trying to carry on in Kennedy's stead while lacking his stature.

Perhaps Kennedy's greatest gift over a 46-year Senate career has been working with Republicans. "He's the only Democrat who really has the sway with the unions, the trial lawyers, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, feminists," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch [R, Utah], a conservative Republican who has teamed with Kennedy on health care legislation for three decades. "We've linked arms on a lot of things for the good of the country. And I give him a lot of credit because it hasn't always been easy to link arms with me."

Of course, Ted Kennedy's record on health care reform is hardly flawless. Critics believe his refusal to compromise with Presidents Nixon and Carter caused him to miss promising windows of opportunity to pass health care reform. During the Reagan years, he bowed to labor unions and declined to back a plan for catastrophic health insurance, a move he later regretted.

Now an overhaul seems more possible than it has in years, and Kennedy's absence is keenly felt on both sides. Hatch hasn't heard from his old friend in more than a month. That's a long way from the days when, in the throes of creating a government health insurance program for poor children, Kennedy enlisted his chief of staff to serenade Hatch, an amateur songwriter, with one of Hatch's most patriotic tunes.

Back then, when Kennedy displayed his liberal stubbornness, Hatch would threaten to call his big sister, Eunice. "He'd say, 'Oh, no, don't do that. We'll work it out,' " Hatch recalled recently, chuckling. Last week, a frustrated Hatch walked out of bipartisan negotiations.

Such deep, cross-party friendships -- it was Hatch who first urged Kennedy to quit drinking after the fatal accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969 -- are rare today among younger lawmakers more focused on conquest than compromise. And that's what's missing as opponents struggle to find common cause on an issue of great concern to most Americans.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi [R, Wy.], the ranking Republican on Kennedy's health committee, found himself largely left out of the process and took to calling the product the "Kennedy staff bill," refusing to believe his friend would have denied him a seat at the table. "[Kennedy] wouldn't have done that," Enzi said recently. "I have always been able to sit down and have some input."

Perhaps as an ode to Kennedy, Senate Democratic leaders this past week decided to devote more time to winning Republican support for a health care overhaul. The effort allows President Obama to keep alive the possibility of bipartisanship on one of the most contentious issues on his agenda.

But the President's party is hardly doing him any favors in Kennedy's absence. Obama is under growing pressure to choose between wooing a small band of Republicans or struggling to rally his party to use its big majorities in Congress to get the job done. The bipartisanship exhibited in the passage of another ambitious domestic program that offers one historical backdrop for this debate — Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 with no small effort by a young Ted Kennedy himself — seems increasingly improbable in today’s Washington. Where are the Kennedys, Keatings, Mansfields, McCarthys, Muskies and Dirksens of this generation?

And, make no mistake, Kennedy would be having to work as hard on his own party - perhaps more so - as with Republicans. Obama has a great deal of political clout, yet he's having one hell of a time corralling his own party behind a health care plan. After a sharp clash on Friday between different camps of Democrats on the health care bill, House staff members worked into the weekend in an effort to reach a compromise and bring a bill to the floor before recessing for the summer.

Of course, even if Obama goes the bipartisan route and succeeds, the end result could be comparatively modest: Perhaps fewer than 10 Senate Republicans, and perhaps not even that many in the House. Social Security, by contrast, passed in 1935 with the support of 16 of the 25 Republican senators and 81 of the 102 Republican representatives.

Obama could certainly use Kennedy, regardless of the challenges: better to have him than not in a Senate where partisan infighting - despite a central pledge Obama offered the nation from the earliest days of his candidacy - shows no sign of abating. Obama's aides have increasingly debated whether he should abide by it in the face of Republican resistance and liberal pressure not to concede on the principles of an overhaul plan, like a public plan to compete with private insurers. And how much are Democrats going to be willing to give up for what could be just a handful of Republican votes, and just the veneer of bipartisanship?

Would Kennedy recommend to Obama that he abandon his efforts to reach out to Republicans? Obama would risk damaging his appeal among independent voters, who have a history of being put off by overt partisanship. In addition, the go-it-alone course could cost Obama and, more important to their own self-preservation, Congressional Democrats political cover should the health care plan prove ineffective, unpopular or excessively costly before the 2010 or 2012 elections. It could also set a polarizing pattern for the remaining three years of Obama’s first term, complicating his efforts to get through an ambitious agenda by forcing him to rely only on Democrats for votes.

No less important, a partisan vote could also undercut the political legitimacy of the effort itself. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were all passed with significant support from both parties, which is one of the reasons those programs have become such an accepted part of the country’s political landscape.

While I'm longing for the "good old days" of bipartisanship, I realize that there is a key, key element that is missing: the moderate. The moderate Democrat and the moderate Republican are more than an endangered species in Congress. Because they are dwindling in numbers to near extinction, it is hardly clear that a bipartisan agreement on health care is even possible. A string of Congressional defeats has recast the Republican Party, leaving it smaller, more conservative and more combative. Thirty years ago, about one-third of Republicans in the House and Senate were moderate. Today, we've lost that ideological middle. The fact is, the loss of the moderates makes it very difficult to get bipartisanship for major policy changes.

The Senate Finance Committee right now offers the lone hope for the White House in its search for Republican support. That is also where the trade-off is particularly stark. It is there that a bill exists that would mean giving up on a public plan to compete with private insurers. The problem is, even with that bill, only a few Republicans have agreed to support it. While that would be enough to get it out of committee, would that be worth it? It is the prospect of that trade that has some Democrats worried and is another source of pressure for the White House.

“If they overstep the line in the negotiations to bring three or four Republicans along, there will be a reaction among Democrats unlike anything you’ll hear among Republicans,” Senator Christopher J. Dodd [D, Conn], said Saturday. Dodd - an old Kennedy drinking buddy and lifelong friend - said, “There is a false assumption that anything you can work out with a handful of Republicans will be embraced by Democrats in the House, the Senate and across the country. That is totally wrong.”

Republicans say this White House’s effort at bipartisanship had been one of symbols — presidential calls, invitations to the White House, regular tending by such high level officials as David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel — rather than substance. “We hear from them all the time,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander [R, Tenn]. “They said the right things. They are as cordial as you can be.” But, Alexander said, the talk has not yet led to a serious effort to find a bipartisan solution. “They should at least try it. They haven’t tried it,” he said.

The last time Congress came close to achieving bipartisan agreement on a major piece of legislation was No Child Left Behind in 2001 [ok, bad example; that legislation was a piece of shit]. Perhaps a better example would be that a significant number of Democrats voted for President George W. Bush’s tax cut, also in 2001.

Kennedy was involved - deeply involved - in No Child Left Behind [or, as I like to call it, No Child Left Standing]. He opposed the tax cuts vigorously. Of course, it's not 2001. It's not 1965 either. It's 2009 and seven-twelfths. Kennedy may not have as long as 2010 to see it passed. While he's still here among us, however, he's not in the Senate. And if this is a portent of what a post-Kennedy Senate is going to look like, our feelings about Kennedy after his death will most definitely tend more toward 'great legislator'.

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