Kennedy’s Death Affects Health Care Debate

Published October 9, 2009

The August 25 death of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), a lifelong champion of universal government-run health care on a national level, was felt particularly in the political debate over health care reform.

Kennedy, whose Senate career was marked by his negotiating ability and authority on domestic policy, was considered the face of the universal health care crusade for decades. As President Barack Obama, whom Kennedy supported from the early days of his presidential campaign, attempts to pass a sweeping health care overhaul, Kennedy’s ability to forge agreements is missing from the current effort to materialize his dream.

Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, said Kennedy was both respected and liked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle during his 47 years in the Senate.

“While he always was firm in his liberal views and I seldom agreed with him, Sen. Kennedy did listen to his Republican colleagues and worked to forge compromises,” Turner said. “That bipartisan spirit has been markedly missing during his absence from the Senate this year. The health reform legislation making its way through Congress is rigid and aggressively liberal, without any evidence of bipartisanship, and it is rightly facing a firestorm of opposition.”

Offered as Tribute

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has asked for the bill to be named after Kennedy in hopes of improving its chances of passage.

Obama, in a televised speech to Congress in September, spoke about Kennedy, implying passing Obama’s reforms would be a tribute to the late senator. “[Kennedy] expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform—’that great unfinished business of our society,’ he called it—would finally pass,” Obama said.

“I think it is too late,” Turner said. “The American people understand the huge impact this legislation would have on the lives of 300 million Americans, and they are not going to be swayed by sentiment. The debate will continue.”

Pragmatism, Compromise

Paul Howard, director of the Center for Medical Progress at the Manhattan Institute, agrees with Turner.

“I think the part of Kennedy’s legacy I hope would help further the debate is the part of it that was pragmatic, [the recognition] that more regulation was not necessarily better regulation, and that reaching across the table to get things done in a pragmatic way would impact the quality of care people would have access to,” Howard said.

Howard said Democrats are instead taking a position arguing, “We’re going to push legislation through whether or not we get Republican support because that’s what Ted Kennedy would have wanted.”

Kennedy’s legacy was one of pragmatic compromise to get a bill passed, even if it didn’t have everything he wanted, agrees Brenda Gleason, an author and president of Washington, DC’s M2 Health Care Consulting.

“His absence has left many left-leaning policymakers in the capital desperately wanting to do something for Teddy, or do what Teddy would have done,” Gleason said. “The trouble is, everyone is using this as a rallying cry for defending whatever their particular position is. In reality, what ‘Teddy would have done’ is compromise and get all the cats herded to get some kind of reform bill passed.

“Kennedy’s passing could turn out to be pivotal if no one else is willing to pick up the ball and run with it—that is, put constituents before ideology and do something, even if it’s not perfect,” Gleason added.

Continued Division Expected

Howard does not believe Kennedy’s death will be enough to rally the country in support of the plan or induce Congress to compromise.

“The Kennedy name is, rightly, an institution in American politics. But Ted Kennedy is not someone viewed as a trans-political figure,” Howard said. “Independents, conservatives, and moderates look at him and a lot of the time disagree with him. [Kennedy’s death] may rally Democrats to push harder for what they want, but it’s unlikely to push the country. The culture wars of the 1990s were too bruising for people to forget that so quickly.”

Celeste Altus ([email protected]) writes from Martinez, California.