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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dreams Into Laws

I can’t match J.P. Green’s eloquence in his obituary for “the lion,” Ted Kennedy. But I do have a few thoughts in appreciation of this great legislator, crossposted from the Progressive Policy Institute site:
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for the career of Edward Moore Kennedy, who died last night at the age of 77, is that he managed to both embody and transcend the mythos of his remarkable family. First elected to the Senate as a callow assistant district attorney to fill out the term of his brother, the President of the United States, within six years he endured the assassinations of both JFK and RFK, and without any real choice in the matter, inherited the vast expectations their shortened lives had created. He became the de facto leader of old-fashioned American liberalism before he turned 40, and with only occasional competition, remained so until his death.
Some now remember his one presidential campaign, a failed challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, as a low point of his career. But in many respects, it actually liberated him from a “destiny” for which he was less suited than the one he built as one of the great legislators of his or any other era. It’s hard to credit this now, but when Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations were dashed, after many years of speculation about when he would make the move towards the White House, he was about the same age as Barack Obama is today. It’s doubtful he could have accomplished more as president in four or eight years than he did before and after that time in the Senate.
Today’s tributes will often note the irony that this man of ideological principle was also a consummate bipartisan legislator. At a time when “bipartisanship” has become a forlorn hope or (to some) a bitter curse, it’s worth remembering Kennedy’s key role in the last great spasm of genuine legislative bipartisanship, the No Child Left Behind legislation, along with his frustrated efforts to secure another bipartisan breakthrough on immigration reform.
But despite his legislative accomplishments in so many areas, from rights for the disabled to national service, there’s no question that universal health coverage was the consuming passion of his entire career. As a freshman senator, he was there to vote for the original Medicare and Medicaid legislation. And in the ensuing 44 years, he played central roles in every painful and frustrating step the country has taken towards universal health coverage.
This legacy will be cited often in the days just ahead, as health care reform advocates tout the enactment of today’s endangered legislation as a fitting tribute to Kennedy, even as others (however disingenuously) cite his bipartisanship and willingness to accept incremental steps towards his goals as grounds for scaling back the drive towards universal coverage. It’s a good bet that he wouldn’t mind the political use of his own memorials if they do in fact contribute to the achievement of universal health coverage, just as he always accepted the unfair burden of the Kennedy family mantle, which aroused so much love and hate in so many people.
In the end, the best tributes to his memory will be written in legislation, the distillation of strong values and bold goals into concrete action for the common good. Few Americans have ever been Ted Kennedy’s peer in the art of making dreams into laws, and he will be missed.

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