Lessons For Obama From Ted Kennedy's Noble Flops
The Financial Times, September 7, 2009
What the president can learn from Kennedy's failure to make the traditional liberal sale.
Edward Kennedy fought to expand health coverage for 40 years, yet millions more Americans lack insurance today than when he started, and bankruptcy due to medical bills has become a uniquely American shame.
The senator for Massachusetts, who died last month, fought perenially to raise the minimum wage, but that wage is lower today as a percentage of average hourly earnings in the US than in 1970. Kennedy also fought to improve schools in impoverished neighbourhoods. Yet today, among advanced nations, 17 boast higher student achievement than in the US alongside test scores less correlated with a child's socio-economic status.
For all Kennedy's efforts, in other words, the fabled "land of opportunity" now offers its citizens a smaller chance of moving up from their economic status at birth than do France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Germany.
These observations are not meant to be churlish or in bad taste; Senator Kennedy has rightly been hailed as a passionate voice for the voiceless and a master of the legislative process. But any assessment of his legacy is incomplete if it fails to ask why American liberalism's modern icon proved so ineffective in persuading his country to share his vision.
This is not a matter of abstract interest. President Barack Obama stands little chance of succeeding in the coming healthcare endgame without understanding why, for all his passion, Kennedy could not make the sale. No man can reverse the tides of history, perhaps, but it was not inevitable that American politics would lurch so far to the right over the course of Kennedy's career. The US economy more than doubled in real terms between 1970 and 2008. Why wasn't America inclined to devote a portion of this bounty to mend the problems Kennedy identified, instead of allowing many of them to worsen?
There is no single answer. But one reason was the sense among voters that liberals tended to worry more about the poor than about the struggling middle class. This same sentiment now threatens Mr Obama's health reform.
"We have to do better at making this issue a moral imperative," Tom Daschle, former Senate majority leader (and Obama confidante) told the New York Times Magazine last month. "This in many respects is the civil rights battle of the early part of this century." But middle-class voters do not see healthcare as a "civil rights issue"a cause in which they should enlist to bring justice to others. With soaring premiums and shrinking and precarious coverage, the 85 per cent of Americans who have health insurance see reform as a matter of economic security for their families.
Unfortunately, the American left has for years defined the issue predominantly as a matter of ending the scandal of the uninsured. They have misled the public with the incoherent claim that expanding coverage to 50m uninsured Americans would be a way to save money.
The Democratic argument has failed to emphasise how health reform can deepen the economic security (anmd improve the health status) of the middle class. Yes, one part of that argument is to ensure that no American in the 21st century goes without coverage. But the liberal instinctto focus first on the neediest in ways that lead squeezed middle-income voters to conclude liberals want to take their hard-earned money and spend it on someone elsehelps explain why Kennedy-style politics never prevailed.
Democrats need to frame their goals as inclusive measures to promote security and opportunity in a global economyimproving the life chances of society's most luckless but also bolstering the security and prospects of America's vast middle class. This is also the only way to persuade average Americans to pay for such policies, which eventually they must.
The White House is scrambling to repair its argument on healthcare to win over the middle class. But similar cases and policies must be framed if Democrats are to build on Kennedy's noble failures and make real headway on schools, wages and more.
This demands a new way of thinking. It took an act of imagination for a son of wealth and privilege such as Edward M. ?Kennedy to devote his life to helping those who had little. It will take another act of imagination for liberals to fulfill Kennedy's dreams by aligning them more closely with middle-class imperatives in a global age.