Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Big Picture: Tribute to Ted Kennedy

Building off the Strike's eloquent tribute to Senator Kennedy last night, I would like to focus on his remarkable combination of staunchness and effectiveness. The highest praise the Strike and I bestow on a politician is to be "staunch" - that is, to stick with your principles even as the rats jump off the ship and sell out, to focus on delivering for people, improving their lives, and not getting caught up in the cynical political games that consume most politicians, to carry the flame for what Ezra Klein called the "tradition that fought for social justice and equality, for decency and dignity, for peace between nations and for security within households. Ted Kennedy was part of a tradition. It did not begin with Ted Kennedy, and it does not end with him. The man may be irreplaceable. But the work can be carried on. "

But it can only be carried on if we remember the true lessons of Ted Kennedy's career. Ted Kennedy didn't bow to the backlash against Sixties liberalism - I read a story yesterday about him walking through South Boston, pelted by tomatoes from his erstwhile base of Irish Catholics bitterly opposed to him for his advocacy of school busing - and unlike this group of cowards we've got now, Kennedy stuck with his guns, always stood for civil rights, what he called "the great unfinished business of America." Ted Kennedy never apologized for his ideals, for his vision of an integrated, inclusive, equal-opportunity America, even as that vision was derided and mocked. So it makes me more than a little angry that these Republicans and "centrist" Democrats now pay him tribute, even as they spent their careers cowering before the big corporations that Kennedy took on, running away from their responsibilities to ordinary folks whose lives Kennedy immeasurably improved. As Ezra Klein said, "There is an impulse to homogenize the dead. To make sure they belong to all of us, rather than to the causes that defined their life. But Ted Kennedy didn't belong to all of us. He didn't even belong to all Democrats. He was not of the party that voted for more than a trillion in unfunded tax cuts but cannot bring itself to pay for health-care reform. Rather, he belonged to the party of Medicare and Medicaid, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Civil Rights Act and immigration reform. He belonged to the party that sought to advance the conditions and opportunities of the least among us. And he still does."

Meyerson pointed out that what is often forgotten from Kennedy's famed "the dream shall never die" speech is that this was not some vague "let's all come together and hold hands" kind of dream. No, it was a staunch dream, a dream that the government, and certainly the Democratic Party, should stand first and foremost for a fair society, one rooted in full employment, good jobs for good wages with good health care, economic security for all. He proclaimed, "I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice. I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work." What he said then was so true then, and is even truer now, so urgent then, even more urgent now. Will he learn from our mistake and heed his call?

"Let us pledge that we will never misuse unemployment, high interest rates, and human misery as false weapons against inflation. Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy. Let us pledge that there will be security for all those who are now at work, and let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work; and we will not compromise on the issues of jobs.

"These are not simplistic pledges. Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land.
"To all those who are idle in the cities and industries of America let us provide new hope for the dignity of useful work. Democrats have always believed that a basic civil right of all Americans is that their right to earn their own way. The party of the people must always be the party of full employment.

"To all those who doubt the future of our economy, let us provide new hope for the reindustrialization of America. And let our vision reach beyond the next election or the next year to a new generation of prosperity. If we could rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II, then surely we can reindustrialize our own nation and revive our inner cities in the 1980s.

"Finally, we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must -- We must not surrender -- We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth."

Would that Barack Obama, and Congressional Democrats, and elite opinion-makers, re-read that speech, see it in the context of our current economic crisis and our health care crisis. Would that Obama and Congressional Democrats remember that Ted Kennedy was the most effective legislator of all-time not because he compromised away his principles, not because he apologized for what he stood for, not because he acted as if his programs wouldn't actually be that effective - as Obama has done, to my tremendous disappointment, when he "promotes" the public plan in health care by saying it really won't be that effective, private companies will still do fine, it's too bad government. How about forcefully, passionately, advocating for programs that protect people against catastrophe, that deliver people the health care they need? We don't apologize for public schools, or public roads. Why should we apologize for public health care? Especially when Medicare - once subject to the same ridiculous attacks - is an enormously popular GOVERNMENT program. Ted Kennedy believed wholeheartedly that government could be a force for good, that it must be a force for good, and then he went out and DELIVERED. Let's stop the defensiveness, the apologizing, the compromising, the selling-out - let's honor Ted Kennedy by being staunch and effective, standing up for what we believe in, and then getting it done.

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