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Memories of Ted Kennedy: Teaching Me How To Be Both Liberal and Purple

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The other night, shortly after Ted Kennedy's tragic passing, I heard Rachel Maddow on MSNBC express skepticism about those who described Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's long history of political compromise with conservative Republicans. Ms. Maddow, whose liberal views on the issues I mostly share and respect, may have mistakenly perceived that those who depicted Mr. Kennedy this way were calling him a "centrist" -- a word that, it seems, Ms. Maddow regards pejoratively.

Perhaps Ms. Maddow was failing to distinguish ideology from legislating -- the difference between Mr. Kennedy's indisputable liberalism on the major issues facing America over the years versus his willingness in the Senate to compromise with conservative Republicans when it was necessary to enact legislation and produce real change.

That distinction is one way in which Senator Kennedy (and similarly, President Obama) can be differentiated from some elements of the left of his party: Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Obama consider the perfect to be the enemy of the good; whereas some liberals of the more "purist" approach to politics consider the converse to be true: the good AS the enemy of the perfect, and some might even say it is better to lose entirely and have no change than to have compromised change.

Take the issue of health care and the example of the "public option." I personally favor the public option, though I have serious concerns that it might lead to a completely government-run health care system without private insurance options.

But compromising out the "public option" and other compromises in the House bill, which most liberals prefer without change, may be the price to get something good -- but not perfect -- through both houses with significant Republican support this year.

We don't know specifically what line in the sand Mr. Kennedy would have drawn that might have led him to say, "no, that compromises too much" on the issue that he described as the most important issue of his political career. But we do have some evidence from past history.

Note what columnist Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in the Washington Post. He noted that when "asked about his greatest regret as a legislator, Ted Kennedy would usually cite his refusal to cut a deal with Richard Nixon on health care."

In 1971, Mr. Pearlstein reminds us, Nixon recognized that national health care could be a major issue in the 1972 presidential campaign and he anticipated that Mr. Kennedy could be the most formidable Democratic candidate. Mr. Nixon offered his own proposal to mandate for the first time that all companies provide a health plan for their employees, with federal subsidies for low-income workers. Note, however, there was no public option in the Nixon proposal. Mr. Kennedy rejected the proposal then, thinking it would be a financial bonanza for the insurance industry.

But, as Mr. Pearlstein wrote, he came to regret that rejection. Indeed, after the 1972 reelection of Mr. Nixon, Mr. Kennedy tried to re-open discussions with the Nixon White House to accept the proposal. But by then Mr. Nixon, no longer feeling the pressures of re-election, was receptive to opposition pressures from the American Medical Association and small businesses, and thus was no longer interested.

By the same token, after the election, Mr. Kennedy was under pressure from purists in the liberal and labor movements to refuse to compromise and wait for Democrats to win the presidency in 1976 in the wake of Watergate. His labor and liberal friends wanted him to wait and get 100 percent -- the enactment of a "single payer" system, as in Canada and Britain.

Looking back, he regretted not cutting the 1971 deal, though it would have been far short of the "perfect" urged on him in 1973.

For this reason, I cannot believe that Mr. Kennedy would have drawn a bright line, as I have heard some liberal Democratic legislators and leaders state, that without a "public option," there should be no health-care bill at all.

I believe, had he been healthy and a central leader of negotiations with Republicans to get a bill enacted, he would have found a way to win significant bipartisan support, even if it meant giving up the public option, in return for passing, at long last, a mandatory-employer-based system that would subsidize the poor who lacked insurance, and as many others beyond the poor as soaring budget deficits and political realities this year would permit.

And I am guessing that, for a change so mammoth affecting almost one-fifth of the U.S. economy, Mr. Kennedy would have opposed attempting to use the "nuclear option" of a bogus reconciliation budget bill to end-run Senate rules requiring 60 votes to invoke cloture, with the result of further polarizing the Senate and the country along party and ideological lines.

It is my guess he would have ultimately have seen enactment of a national requirement that insurance companies insure all -- even those with pre-existing conditions or who are at health-risk ages -- as a good thing; and getting as high a percentage of the uninsured included in the subsidy as possible, even if not 100 percent, as a good first step.

As Democratic pollster Geoff Garin reminded us in an op-ed on Saturday:

"Democrats did not get their way on the creation of the Medicare and prescription-drug benefit but on that, too, Mr. Kennedy decided that something was better than nothing, even though seniors were required to buy their coverage through private companies and Medicare was prevented from negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies for the best prices. Kennedy gave Bush [and also on "No Child Left Behind," opposed by teachers unions and many liberal groups] a victory rather than sending the Republicans to their Waterloo because he believed the result was more important than short-term politics."

Regarding his willingness to listen and compromise, it should be no surprise that Mr. Kennedy, the Liberal Lion, was regarded as the most popular and effective Democratic senator by the Senate Republican caucus; no coincidence that three of his best friends in the U.S. Senate were conservative Republicans: current Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and John McCain of Arizona, and former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.

I remember the night at Hickory Hill, home of the late Robert F. Kennedy, at a fund-raiser for the RFK Foundation, when Mr. Hatch and Mr. Kennedy took the stage and, arms around each other, sang the famous song from the musical "Gypsy":

"Wherever you go, whatever you do / We're going to do it -- together."

My most vivid personal memory, to this day, of the Kennedy view to see life as rosy and hopeful even at moments of great disappointment:

It was Nov. 2, 1976. I was 28 years old and, as the Democratic congressional nominee in Montgomery County, Maryland's 8th Congressional District, I had just lost the race narrowly. I had worked briefly for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the 1968 presidential campaign and had first met Ted Kennedy then. He did not forget.

When I asked him if he would come into the county to campaign for me, he immediately agreed.

In October, he came to Silver Spring for a campaign rally. We were optimistic and rented a hotel ballroom that comfortably would be filled with 500 people. More than 2,000 showed up.

Now, a few weeks later on election night, minutes after my defeat was announced on TV, the phone rang. I picked up and heard that familiar cheerful Boston accent.

"How are you feeling?" he asked. "I'll bet like #%&," he said quickly, answering his own question.

"Yes, that's about right," I laughed.

Then he said, cheerfully: "Then get up, get in the car, and go over to your Republican opponent's headquarters, shake his hand and congratulate him. Believe it or not, you'll shock the hell out of everyone, including yourself -- and you'll feel better if you can do that."

"OK," I said, so quickly that I surprised myself.

I went. And I did feel better for doing so.

That was one of the many lessons Mr. Kennedy taught me -- graciousness in defeat -- over the more than the 41 years I was privileged to know him. He was my liberal icon and mentor, my political hero, my friend -- for me and many, many others across the nation.

Probably most important of all, as I watched his career in the Senate, Mr. Kennedy taught me the lesson that led to the title of this column -- "Purple Nation." President Obama put it best in his eulogy on Saturday morning:

"While his causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did... He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect -- a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots."

Thank you, Senator Kennedy. May your soul rest in peace. We shall all miss you, Democrats and Republicans alike.

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DAVIS: Ted taught me to be liberal, purple - Washington Times