What will Ted Kennedy’s legacy be?
Edward M. Kennedy was something of a fluke.
He was the only Kennedy to outright lose a run at the Presidency of the United States. At age 48 (older then than any of his brothers lived to be), he came in second in a two man race for the Democratic nomination. That was 1980, and unbeknownst to anyone the Reagan years loomed ahead. Many have wondered how the course of American history would be different if Kennedy had won the nomination — not Kennedy. He was always looking toward the future, unwilling to linger in the past.
Edward M. Kennedy, known best as Ted, lived nearly thirty more years, active in politics all the while, before succumbing to a brain tumor late Tuesday evening at the age of 77.
Kennedy was well known for championing a wide range of causes during his lengthy Senate career. Able and willing to speak on topics as diverse as immigration reform, education, and the rights of the mentally and physically handicapped, he is probably best known for his efforts to reform the health care industry. The irony of his death while health care reform has finally become the largest issue in American politics is not lost on anyone.
As far back as the Nixon administration, Kennedy worked with both Democratic and Republican presidents and politicans, both while in the congressional majority and the minority, in an attempt to get universal health care coverage for all Americans. Though Ted never reached that goal, he continued to labor toward improving health care coverage, and was well known for reaching across the aisle to pass a series of tiny measures that moved us toward better health care.
Kennedy seemed to have his greatest success while in the political minority — think of the 1990s. Back then, President Bill Clinton’s attempts to push a plan for universal health care faltered, and Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. Seemed like a dark time for a Democratic senator, but not for Ted. Senator Kennedy took the defeat in stride, continuing to work for health care reform, creating and passing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act in 1996. This act was instrumental in helping people maintain their health insurance after changing jobs, while also improving the confidentiality of all health records. In that same year, Kennedy’s Mental Health Parity Act made mental health payments by insurance companies equal to payments for all other illnesses. Then, In 1997, Senator Kennedy was the lead player in the oush for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which represented the largest expansion of government controlled health insurance coverage in the United States in over thirty years.
Unfortunately for Senator Kennedy, his battle with cancer kept him from actively participating in the current raging debate over health care reform under the new Obama administration. Kennedy had been completely unable to go to Washington and use his hefty political skill to affect any compromise that might have been able to keep the Democrat’s initial legislative plans on track. As Senator Kennedy’s condition grew worse, it was obvious to all involved that the fight with cancer would keep Kennedy from taking part in any floor votes. This means that Kennedy’s last official political act was a request (made just last week) to allow a successor to be appointed to his seat in the Senate as an interim Senator.
Senator Kennedy’s seat will most likely remain empty for up to six months while preparations for a special election to fill his vacant spot can be made. The Democrats will be missing that crucial 60th Senate vote if their efforts to form a bipartisan coalition or compromise fall through.
Senator Edward Kennedy, who had been only an occasional presence in government over the past year and a half due to his illness, has left behind a lengthy political legacy and a Senate seat so difficult to fill you can hear the echo. What remains to be seen is any impact that the death of Kennedy might have on what became his signature political fight — health care reform.
Let’s hope that his empty Senate seat will serve as a silent witness to the power of compromise, the value of health care reform, and the need for political discourse in a country wracked by disagreement.