Thursday, August 27, 2009

Health Care Reform: Can Our Grief Spur Success?

Since early Wednesday morning, American media has been singing Sen. Edward Kennedy’s praises, explaining his history of dedication and virtually unparalleled accomplishments – both for the record, and for the edification of the uninformed. He was a strong supporter of health care reform (not just recently, but for decades), and I know I’m not the first to suggest (and hope) that current reform efforts may have a better chance of success now, in Teddy K’s honor and memory. In other words, don’t send flowers, send a “public option” to the floor – and pass it!

Ted Kennedy was a lifelong, unabashed liberal – not like many of today’s liberals: frightened, unfocused, humorless and more concerned with political correctness than political effectiveness – but rather, a person who believed in human equality as a given, and who championed fairness, dignity, opportunity, and the appropriate support of government for all Americans. He was a rich man from a rich family that believed the rich had a moral obligation to share the wealth through philanthropy, patronage, service and, yes, taxation in balance with their bounty – a lost concept called noblesse oblige that even the early 20th century “robber barons” (John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, John Pierpont Morgan, et al) embraced. Journalist E.L. Godkin (1831-1902) once observed that “Plenty of people know how to get money; be rich properly is, indeed, a fine art. It requires culture, imagination, and character.”

That was the kind of wealth the Kennedys cultivated, the values of which John F. and Robert F. tried to promote before assassins stopped them in their tracks. But their baby brother, Edward M., took up the mantle. And, as fate would have it, the tragedy and scandal of Chappaquiddick that kept him out of the White House did not prevent him from settling-in in the Senate for 46 years and redeeming himself in the public eye by leaving his distinctive, and distinguished, mark on legislation for civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor (he was chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at the time of his death).

But perhaps most important, he came to define bipartisanship by working with unique effectiveness with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. It is in this spirit, in recognition of this kind of political teamwork, that I sincerely hope that Democratic politicians across the land will learn how to behave like Democrats again, and Republican politicians will remember that compromise and cooperation do not constitute disloyalty to their party and its values (whatever they are in the post-Bush/Sarah-Palin era).

The health care reform bill currently in debate and under attack is a mess. It should be clarified, simplified, expanded, and identified in non-clinical language that everyone can understand: Medicare for All – a complete “public option.” To be sure, Medicare as it is, and a new Medicare for All policy, require a major clean-up, streamlining and overall upgrading of the system. But it can be done. Ted Kennedy would have known how to do it, and how to sell it to the strident opposition. We can only hope that his death will breathe new life into the health care reform effort.

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