After Kennedy, New Talking Points in an Old Debate

It seems that Ted Kennedy’s death has already changed the nature of the debate over health care reform—but not in a way that necessarily changes the outcome.

As expected, Democrats have sought to use the emotions unleashed by the passing of a man who called universal health care the cause of his life to inject their push for a comprehensive overhaul with some Let’s-do-it-for-Ted purpose and urgency.

“If people are truly interested in honoring his legacy,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the day after the senator’s death, “the best possible legacy is to pass health reform this year and get President Obama a bill he can sign.”

And grass-roots progressives wasted little time launching HonorKennedy.com, an online petition that declares: “Ted Kennedy was a courageous champion for health care reform his entire life. In his honor, name the reform bill that passed Kennedy's health committee ‘The Kennedy Bill’—then pass it, and nothing less, through the Senate.”

It was Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that passed a bill containing the public option provision that the left covets—and that conservative Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee (possibly with quiet support from the White House and Senate leadership) are trying to kill.

But, proceeding on three different tracks, the right is also making Kennedy a central figure in its effort to defeat the Democrats’ reform effort.

First, conservative opinion-shapers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are accusing the left of “politicizing” Kennedy’s death, trying to stir up the same popular backlash they manufactured after Paul Wellstone’s rollicking memorial service days before the 2002 midterm elections. (It matters not, of course, that after Ronald Reagan’s 2004 death, Limbaugh and others encouraged their flocks to support George W. Bush as a tribute to the Gipper.)

Others see Kennedy’s passing as fodder for more death panel fear-mongering. If President Obama gets his way, Mike Huckabee fraudulently asserted, then people in Kennedy’s position—diagnosed with a terminal illness—will in the future be told that they “might want to consider just taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation to cure them.”

And then there’s the most popular tactic: insisting that Kennedy, who was in constant communication with Senate leaders about health care strategy in the final months of his life, would never have pursued reform the way Obama and Congressional Democrats have and that there would be genuine bipartisanship had he not been sidelined by illness.

“Kennedy could bring together all of the base groups of the Democratic Party,” Orrin Hatch, one of Kennedy’s closest Senate friends, said on Sunday’s This Week. “In every case, he fought as hard as he could, but when he recognized that he couldn’t get everything he wanted, he worked with the other side. If he was here, I don’t think we’d be in the mess we’re in right now.”

This is the same Hatch, mind you, who demagogued a universal health care plan introduced by Kennedy in 1994—the last time Congress was actually in position to pass reform—as “nothing more than a pasteurized version of Clinton's blueprint for socialized medicine.”

Other Republican senators, particularly John McCain, have been pressing this same argument, in effect using Kennedy’s legacy as a rationalization for the same reflexive opposition they exhibited when he was alive and well.

In terms of the health care debate, it doesn’t really matter that the right’s arguments are badly disingenuous. In today’s political culture, virtually every major event is immediately subjected to two diametrically opposed interpretations, one courtesy of Fox News, the other from MSNBC. In the case of Kennedy’s death, the right now has its talking points, and it’s doubtful either side will win many new converts.