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Liberalism's Torch Bearer

The elder statesman. The dynastic icon. The man of personal excess. The man of a thousand legislative accomplishments. As the tributes and obituaries attest, Ted Kennedy was all of these things, at one time or another--for better and, yes, sometimes for worse. Like he famously said of his slain brother, Robert, Ted Kennedy "need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life."

But Ted Kennedy was something else, too. He was a crusader. He was--again, to quote his fraternal eulogy--somebody "who saw wrong and tried to right it." He possessed not just a clarity of purpose, but a certainty that his purpose had moral grounding. And that made Kennedy somewhat unusual, or at least quaint, in the part of the ideological universe he inhabited.

We live in a strange political moment, one in which conservatives talk freely--and instinctively--of their causes in moral terms, whether it's a matter of life or death, or a matter simply of death taxes. To regulate the practices of business or to cede a woman's control over pregnancy; to erect walls between church and state or to raise taxes on capital gains. All of these things, in the conservative mind, are evil. And they are not afraid to say so. Liberals are not so quick to invoke morality. We call up statistics and, if we're feeling indignant, we'll take a stand on integrity and honesty. But we seem strangely uncomfortable making naked appeals to the public's sense of right and wrong--whether out of a confidence that our policy analysis will prevail or a fear that the public will not see things the way we do.

I confess my sense of this is informed heavily by what's transpired over the last few weeks, over what was Kennedy's signature issue. Guaranteeing that all Americans can get affordable health care was a lifelong quest for Kennedy. He pursued it when it was popular and when it was unpopular, in ways big and small. And this year, finally, he seemed on the verge of achieving it--if only he could hang on to see the process through to its completion. But for the last month or so, a conservative backlash has halted that progress, and threatened to stop it altogether. On cable television and in town halls, conservatives rail against health care reform as an unconscionable infringement on liberty--an effort, literally, to snuff out the sick, the elderly, and the veterans of foreign wars.

Liberals have countered with numbers, legislative histories--in short, we've made appeals to logic. But appeals to morality? They've been few and far between. We've approached health care reform as a problem to solve--which, surely, it is. We've not approached it as an obligation to fulfill--which, surely, it is as well.

Kennedy rarely made that mistake. When he looked at America, he saw a country full of people made vulnerable--by circumstance of birth, economic misfortune, illness, or injury. Some were middle-class; some were poor. In either case, he believed, we had an obligation, as a nation, to protect them--if not to render them whole, then at least to make them safe. And so he spoke out-- for universal health care, for civil rights, for aid to people with disabilities, for more generous assistance to the poor. And when opponents criticized those moves, because they meant bigger government or bigger taxes, Kennedy didn't deny the charge. He justified it, in a way few Democrats would dare do today. It was, he said, the way Americans fulfill their duty to one another.

Of course, Kennedy had advantages most of his colleagues didn't: a liberal state, personal wealth, and the best brand name in Democratic politics. Speaking out simply didn't carry the same political risks. But nobody forced him to make these appeals, to defend and advocate for liberalism at a time when it was anything but fashionable. He did it because he believed it was right. And, in any event, nobody ever accused a Kennedy of avoiding risk.

So what now? Two of Kennedy's colleagues, Orrin Hatch and John McCain, remarked recently that health reform would be in much better shape if Kennedy had been shepherding it along personally--because he was the type of Democrat who knew how to compromise and accommodate his political opposition. Hatch and McCain spoke these words with apparent sadness, and I don't doubt the sentiment was genuine. Both had worked with Kennedy on major legislation in recent years; Hatch, in particular, had struck up a close personal friendship with the man who was, in almost every respect, his ideological opposite. And Kennedy really was the consummate deal-maker. He had brokered compromises on two of President George W. Bush's signature accomplishments: the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare Drug Benefit.

But this notion that Kennedy's liberal reputation somehow belied his pragmatism--a notion already gaining traction in the media, which has turned non-partisan accommodation into a fetish-- misses the point. Kennedy compromised on means, not ends. He would negotiate because it helped achieve his broader goals--signing on to NCLB, whatever its cookie-cutter standards, because it would send money to schools in poor, underfunded districts; embracing the Medicare drug benefit because, however poorly designed, it'd save senior citizens from having to choose between medicine and food.

It was precisely because Kennedy's devotion to his notion of social justice was so clear and dependable that he could make such deals stick. Liberals trusted him because we knew he wouldn't sell out the broader cause. If it was good enough for Kennedy, we figured, it was good enough for us. We knew he didn't see pragmatism as an alternative to ideology. It was just a necessary method of fulfilling it.

In the fight for health care--and, perhaps, the broader liberal agenda--this sense of moral purpose has waned. It's inefficient to spend 16 percent of gross domestic product on health care. But it's an affront to our basic sense of decency that almost any American can lose his savings, his home, or even his life because he doesn't have the right insurance policy--or perhaps because he doesn't have any policy at all. As Kennedy battled brain cancer, critics would point to the expensive, cutting-edge treatments he received and say he was fortunate to live in a country that made such treatments available. That's right, Kennedy shot back--but why should only rich people like him be guaranteed access? A decent society made these gifts available to all. (He'd also point out that, thanks to the waste, there really was money to treat everybody; Kennedy knew the policy facts, even if he didn't rely exclusively on them.)

In the hours since Kennedy's passing, his speech to the 1980 Democratic convention--his most memorable oration, along with the RFK eulogy--has gotten a lot of play. Typically the networks show the final quote, in which he promises to continue his crusade even as he gives up his quest for the presidency. But the more important passage is where he invokes Franklin Roosevelt as an unabashed defender of the common man against the forces--and, yes, the people--who would disregard his well-being. Like FDR, Kennedy was not afraid to talk about values, to talk about right and wrong. Now that Kennedy is gone, who will pick up that torch?

Update: I added a sentence to clarify that Kennedy's definition of the vulnerable could include the middle class as well as poor.