The Kennedy Strategy

What the last of the great liberals can teach Obama about how to fight for health care reform.

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As Congress returns from summer recess and President Obama prepares to address the nation on health care, it's worth remembering that it's been barely two weeks since the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy. We’d known that Sen. Kennedy was terminally ill since 2008, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. But his death still evoked powerful emotions and reflections among politicians of all stripes and average citizens. Some media outlets tried to move on after a day or two of Kennedy stories, but the public’s appetite for reflection remained unsatisfied until the formal memorial ceremonies, moving many to tears and hopefully serving as a wake-up call.

In the weeks prior to Sen. Kennedy’s death, our nation was caught in the grip of a crude and dangerously heated discourse. The health care debate had been co-opted by the voices of irrationality, fear and even racism. President Barack Obama seemed relegated to the sidelines as congressional leaders struggled against right-wing crowds—many organized by groups with strong ties to the health care industry. Town hall meetings across the country quickly became vehicles for the most extreme members of the right to air their generalized rage at the changed political and social landscape ushered in by the November 2008 election.

Even before the town halls, we’d endured two disappointingly retro race moments—the attacks on Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which the first Latina Supreme Court nominee was asked to reassure the all-white Senate Judiciary Committee that she was not racist, and the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., which ended in an awkward and inexplicably personal rapprochement instead of with public dialogue and policy examination.

But our look back on the life of Sen. Kennedy offered us a pause—a chance to remember that there was once such a thing as an unashamed liberal, one who managed to wield power, to compromise when necessary, but to press always for an agenda of social and political equality for our country’s most marginalized groups. Sen. Kennedy’s brand of liberalism was one that targeted the moral core of the American identity and confronted our country’s greatest failings—our demonization of the poor, our failure to provide basic health care for all, our resistance to civil rights for racial minorities, women, the disabled, and gays and lesbians. He didn’t run from his progressive sensibilities, and he didn’t try to recast the political center as the “new left,” as so many Democrats have done in the past 20 years.

For conservatives, Kennedy’s death should be a reminder that there is a different way to engage opposing viewpoints than what has become the Republican brand of the past 10 years. There was a time when Sen. Kennedy’s Republican colleagues —Sens. Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch and Howard Baker were leaders in a party who fought hard for their policies without engaging in the kind of irrational, strident fear-mongering that has become the Republican brand. These were politicians, capable of intelligent public debate—not hysterical ideologues stoking the fears of the most extreme elements of their party.

President Obama may return from his mourning refreshed as well. Reflecting on the contributions of Sen. Kennedy may present the president with an opportunity to remember why so much of the American public was drawn to his message and his campaign for the presidency last year. It was a hunger for a new way—a chance to break from the shocking and illegal excesses of the Bush presidency. To end the era when torture became defensible, when war was manufactured, when thousands drowned in filthy water in one of our major cities, when science and rationality were disparaged, when every aspect of American government was politicized, when our economy was wrecked by an administration that refused to regulate the financial industry, and when our government operated under a hard cloak of secrecy. It was, first and foremost, a desire to restore the rule of law to a country that had lost its way.

For Obama, the first opportunity to demonstrate a renewed sense of purpose could come in a public and unequivocal endorsement of his attorney general’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor in the CIA torture cases and a commitment to transparency on the status of detainees still held by the United States at Bagram and at Guantanamo. It is important to “look forward,” as the president has insisted, but legal accountability always looks back.

Restoring the rule of law is a key part of the president’s portfolio, but it cannot be accomplished through half measures, continued secrecy or the selective prosecution of those who shredded the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture and our own domestic torture statute. The president’s effort to tamp down calls for full accountability for crimes committed under the Bush administration has only emboldened the ravings of former Vice President Dick Cheney (and more frequently his daughter, Liz) who continues to publicly and forcefully defend actions taken during the Bush administration that by now should be universally regarded as beyond the pale.

President Obama should forcefully remind us of the centrality of the rule of law to our character as a nation.

On health care, the debate should also be invigorated by a renewed presidential focus. By now, it should be clear that health care reform legislation is a matter that requires the leadership of the most eloquent and trusted leader in American life. The president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday is acknowledgement of that fact. We need the president to take us back to first principles—and make the moral case for universal health care. It may seem a simple thing, but we also need the president to guide us through the various options and to tell us which he prefers and why. The conflicting statements from his administration earlier this summer about whether the president regards the public option as an essential aspect of reform, combined with the president’s recent solicitude toward Republicans who are clearly committed to destroying any health care reform legislation, has had the effect of weakening support for health care reform among average Democrats.

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