- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009


The other night, shortly after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s tragic passing, I heard Rachel Maddow on MSNBC express skepticism about those who described the Massachusetts Democrat’s long history of political compromise with conservative Republicans.

Ms. Maddow, whose liberal views on the issues I mostly share and respect, may have mistakenly perceived that those who depicted Mr. Kennedy this way were calling him a “centrist” - a word that, it seems, Ms. Maddow regards pejoratively.

Perhaps Ms. Maddow was failing to distinguish ideology from legislating - the difference between Mr. Kennedy’s indisputable liberalism on the major issues facing America over the years versus his willingness in the Senate to compromise with conservative Republicans when it was necessary to enact legislation and produce real change.

That distinction is one way in which Mr. Kennedy (and similarly, President Obama) can be differentiated from some elements of the left of his party: Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Obama consider the perfect to be the enemy of the good; whereas some liberals of the more “purist” approach to politics consider the converse to be true: the good as the enemy of the perfect, and some might even say it is better to lose entirely and have no change than to have compromised change.

Take the issue of health care and the example of the “public option.” I personally favor the public option, though I have serious concerns that it might lead to a completely government-run health care system without private insurance options.

But compromising out the “public option” and other compromises in the House bill, which most liberals prefer without change, may be the price to get something good - but not perfect - through both houses with significant Republican support this year.

We don’t know specifically what line in the sand Mr. Kennedy would have drawn that might have led him to say, “No, that compromises too much” on the issue that he described as the most important issue of his political career. But we do have some evidence from history.

Note what columnist Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in The Washington Post. He noted that when “asked about his greatest regret as a legislator, Ted Kennedy would usually cite his refusal to cut a deal with Richard Nixon on health care.”

In 1971, Mr. Pearlstein reminds us, Mr. Nixon recognized that national health care could be a major issue in the 1972 presidential campaign, and he anticipated that Mr. Kennedy could be the most formidable Democratic candidate. Mr. Nixon offered his own proposal to mandate for the first time that all companies provide a health plan for their employees, with federal subsidies for low-income workers.

Note, however, there was no public option in the Nixon proposal. Mr. Kennedy rejected the proposal then, thinking it would be a financial bonanza for the insurance industry.

But, as Mr. Pearlstein wrote, he came to regret that rejection. Indeed, after the 1972 re-election of Mr. Nixon, Mr. Kennedy tried to reopen discussions with the Nixon White House to accept the proposal. But by then, Mr. Nixon, no longer feeling the pressures of re-election, was receptive to opposition pressures from the American Medical Association and small businesses, and thus was no longer interested.

By the same token, after the election, Mr. Kennedy was under pressure from purists in the liberal and labor movements to refuse to compromise and wait for Democrats to win the presidency in 1976 in the wake of Watergate. His labor and liberal friends wanted him to wait and get 100 percent - the enactment of a “single payer” system, as in Canada and Britain.

Looking back, he regretted not cutting the 1971 deal, though it would have been far short of the “perfect” urged on him in 1973.

For this reason, I cannot believe that Mr. Kennedy would have drawn a bright line, as I have heard some liberal Democratic legislators and leaders state, that without a “public option” there should be no health care bill at all.

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