Posted by: Jeff | August 26, 2009

How Compromise and Principle Can Go Together

Ezra Klein has a good post up on Ted Kennedy’s legacy, and an even better post about the faith Kennedy’s supporters and peers had in his commitment to doing the right thing.

What was important about Kennedy’s career, though, was that he managed to marry compromise and principle. He was not a believer in lonely stands that underscored his purity. Nor was he a believer in compromising simply for the sake of compromise. Kennedy was the force behind No Child Left Behind and the failed effort at immigration reform. He brokered the deal behind the Children’s Health Insurance Program and tried to pass the Patient’s Bill of Rights. All this wasn’t in spite of Kennedy’s reputation as a committed liberal. It was because of it.

A Senate Finance Committee staffer once invited me to consider the fallout if Max Baucus had brokered No Child Left Behind, or tried to work with Bush on immigration. “But Kennedy is Kennedy,” the staffer said, “so he’s beyond reproach.” And it’s true: Kennedy was beyond reproach. Liberals generally trusted that the deal he got was the best deal possible. That’s what made Kennedy a good guy to strike a deal with: His name on the bill brought actual votes and support. And that was only possible because his constituency trusted his compromises. That’s not true for the figures left in the health-care debate, at least on the Senate side, and it’s a real loss.

The implications for the debate over the public option are obvious. At this point, if the public option is abandoned, no one on the left is going to believe it was because it had to be abandoned. They won’t buy that health care reform without a public option was the best deal possible. They’re going to believe it was because Democratic politicians wanted campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, or because they made tit-for-tat back room deals or out of some other form of craven political self-interest. Or because they just lost their nerve.

I think all of those assumptions would be inaccurate. But it’s not as if the Obama Administration and the Democratic leadership have managed to make that inaccuracy blindingly obvious. Kennedy might have managed to do that.

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