The pleas for politicos and pundits to refrain from politicizing the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy are actually quite charming in their naivete. The so-called Last Lion of the U.S. Senate was not even dead half of a day when the politicking began. Proponents of Democratic efforts to reform overhaul America’s troubled healthcare system quickly began urging passage as a tribute to Kennedy’s lifelong efforts on the issue.
Just a small sampling: Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, said he hoped that when legislation has been signed into law, it “will bear his name for his commitment to insuring the health of every American.” Andy Stern, president of the giant Service Employees International Union, noted Kennedy introduced his first healthcare reform bill 39 years ago: “Let us continue his cause. Let us take action this year to pass healthcare reform.” And in the Twitterverse, influential liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas used 58 characters this way: “Honor Kennedy’s legacy by passing real health care reform.”
Maybe they could even call it the Trillion Dollar Tribute for Teddy. But it will take more than nostalgia and sentiment to get healthcare reform passed. A new survey from Public Opinion Strategies finds that just 25 percent of Americans favor President Obama’s proposals, comparable to the scant 23 percent who favored Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan in 1994 as it imploded. Betting markets put the odds of passage of a public option at just one in three. And in its lead editorial today, the Washington Post said the new budget deficit numbers mean the Obamacrats should start from scratch and develop a more affordable approach.
The cold, hard politics of the situation is this: Kennedy’s death makes passing healthcare reform tougher not easier. His seat will likely remain vacant until late January since there will be no interim appointment in Massachusetts and state law calls only for a special election to be held within 145 to 160 days. That is one extra tough-to-find vote Democrats will need if they try and shut down any GOP filibuster attempts. And if Democrats try to ram through a bill under reconciliation, a special budget procedure, Kennedy could have been helpful in rallying squeamish Dems and lobbying groups for the tough parliamentary battle, points out veteran Capitol Hill watcher Pete Davis, who tracks Washington politics for financial institutions.
But maybe as the Kennedy tributes continue to pour in, someone will notice his role in deregulating the transportation sector in the 1970s. As a result, both the trucking and airline industries were exposed to market forces that lowered costs for moving both people and goods across the country. Likewise, more fully exposing the U.S. healthcare system to market forces is essential to lowering costs and ensuring continued technological innovation. Now that would be a fitting tribute to the totality of the Kennedy legacy.