In his almost five decades in the Senate, Teddy Kennedy learned a few things about legislating, especially negotiating over legislation. In the tributes to him, we hear it again and again: Teddy could work with just about anyone.
But let’s be clear about one thing: for Kennedy, bipartisanship was a means to an end — getting a good bill passed — and not an end in itself. Whether he was negotiating with conservative democrats or even more conservative Republicans to get his ideas into law, it was always about getting a good bill passed. What defined "a good bill" for him was simple: "The point is to have some positive impact on people’s lives."
That quote is from an interview with Charlie Pierce, done for a January 2003 feature in the Boston Globe magazine. Pierce lays out a great description of Kennedy’s approach to negotiating and legislating, that comes from a conversation about No Child Left Behind:
Bush signed the bill anyway, and House Republicans walked away from funding most of it. Maybe the president knew they would. Maybe he didn’t. Kennedy shrugs at the politics of it. They only came across with the money that made it easier for poor parents to be more directly involved in early childhood education.
That morning, Kennedy had visited a local facility where that part of the program had been implemented.
"It’s an obvious factor," Kennedy says. "Children learn from their parents, and then they learn at school. It should be obvious that children will learn more if we can help the parents be involved. There was a lot of resistance to No Child Left Behind – on that point, even. Unbelievable. But it was put in, and it got funded, and . . . I met the parents today and saw the direct results. I met the mothers out there, and I saw what a difference that’s going to make. That’s enough for me today, I’ll tell you."
His voice changes on those five words: I met the parents today. His identification with them is nearly a physical thing. You can see their images in his eyes. You can hear their voices in the way that his changes. It’s free of all the verbal confetti, and suddenly it’s full of echoes in both its sudden precision ("Let the word go forth . . .") and its controlled passion (". . . and say, `Why not?’ "). He’s rounded out of his chair, and there’s a flash to his eyes, and he’s still a big man when he straightens up. "The point is to have some positive impact on people’s lives," he continues. "The danger as a legislator is that you get involved with just passing the bill. You can lose the context of what passing the bill means, and then you’re just shuffling papers, and you lose that emotional contact. Maybe some people could do it. I think I’d run dry pretty quick."
This is a dangerous time for legislators dealing with health care. The pressure to "just pass a bill" is big, and if folks buy into the "pass it for Teddy" idea, things could easily shift into "never mind what’s in the bill, just pass it for Teddy’s sake." That’s clearly the ploy of the anti-reform GOP voices who salute Teddy’s bipartisanship.
Kennedy would laugh at such an idea. It’s not about the name on the bill, or the name on the program, or the name above the signature line where it gets signed into law.
It’s about having some positive impact on people’s lives.
I get that — I’m a pastor. I’ve just come from making some hospital visits on my members, and have almost daily conversations about the state of health care with parishioners, family members, medical care providers, and others. These are people in desperate need of reform that has some positive impact on their lives.
Before Max Baucus invokes Kennedy’s memory in support of anything less than a bill with a strong public option, Baucus needs to meet a few people like I saw today. He’s obviously had plenty of conversations with the Baucus Caucus and done plenty of paper shuffling, but not nearly enough meeting with ordinary people who struggle with our health care system.
It’s not about "passing a bill," senators. It’s about having some positive impact on people’s lives. There’s a big, big difference.