BY SUSAN ESTRICH
It’s been a long and ugly weekend, e-mail wise. Ted Kennedy may be gone, but the haters are still out there. Every time I said a nice word, my BlackBerry would start vibrating.
“Did everyone like Ted Kennedy?” one of the Fox anchors asked me. Certainly not everyone in America. There was a reason Republicans chose him, year-in and year-out, as a focus for organizing and fundraising appeals since long before anyone had ever heard of a guy named Barack Obama.
And yet, Kennedy offers to Obama what may be his best chance to pass health care.
Inside the United States Senate and inside the top ranks of the Democratic Party, it would be hard to find someone who was not touched by Teddy’s passion or generosity, someone who doesn’t have a story to tell of how Teddy reached out to them in their own time of illness or loss. A friend wrote to me today describing the gathering of former staffers on the Capitol steps, everyone weeping openly. Working for “the Senator” was for many of us the best work we have ever done. Working with him, many legislators discovered, was the best work they ever did.
If we owe him anything, and I think we do, it is to try to figure out how to use this moment to do more than scream at one another across the partisan divide about socialized medicine.
For a man who was a partisan symbol, Kennedy spent a great deal of his life courting Republicans. He prided himself on his relationships with those on the other side, relationships that allowed him to accomplish more legislatively than the liberal lion should have.
Justice Stephen Breyer was confirmed for the Court of Appeals after Jimmy Carter lost the presidency in large part because of Teddy’s relationship with Strom Thurmond. Orrin Hatch was a close friend. Teddy was from the old school, the one that loved politics with all its rivalries, the one where you fought all day and had a drink at night, the one where we’re all on the same team when it counts most.
The best way to accomplish health care reform in this country would be for Democrats and Republicans to work together to come up with an approach that provides access to those who don’t have it and controls the costs that both government and private insurers are having grave difficulty keeping up with. I know, dream on. Still, if there is one place that could happen, right now, it is the United States Senate.
This is the moment to renew the call, in Teddy’s name, to not let his dream become the next “Willie Horton” or the next “Swiftboat,” a shorthand for the failures of attack politics.
Teddy was not for “nationalized health care,” and he was not for “socialized medicine.” He was not for taking health care from the elderly and giving it instead to immigrants. The public debate on health care has been won, so far, by those who oppose Obama far more than they care [or know] about health care.
I would like to believe that could change. I would like to believe that someone, maybe the president, could find a way to move us past warring town meetings and screaming grandmothers, beyond media circuses to honest dialogue.
But even if it’s too late to change the public debate, even if Teddy’s name is not the right one to convince moderates and independents that the Democrats are not off on some tax-and-spend frolic and detour, there is still the Senate.
Sixty people will decide whether to change the health care system in this country, and all of them served with Ted Kennedy, worked with him, laughed with him. They sat in the church on Saturday to say goodbye to him. Now, it is up to them to write the bill that will honor his memory.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer