As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Meaning Of Compromise

I think everyone expected Republicans to pre-emptively accuse Democrats of politicization in the wake of Ted Kennedy's death. (By the way, please politicize my death.) But that's just the far edge of the Overton window, the bluff so Democrats won't try to take comfort and inspiration to pass the cause of Kennedy's life. The far more insidious tactic, proffered by the right in a coalition with the bipartisan fetishists in the media, is to revise Kennedy's legacy as that of the ultimate centrist, in a fashion, the bipartisan dealmaker, the Great Compromiser. They've done a full-court press on this:

Senator Judd Gregg is already hinting at the idea. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Gregg hailed the bipartisan support for legislation he and Kennedy created together, adding that Kennedy knew how to “move the ball down the road with conservatives like myself.”

Meanwhile, Karl Rove hailed Kennedy on Fox this morning for being “willing to compromise.”

Other GOPers are floating the idea in The New York Times anonymously, in a discussion of how to navigate the politics of Kennedy’s death:

Republicans also noted that Mr. Kennedy, though an ideological liberal, was a legislative pragmatist who worked with Republicans to strike compromises on difficult subjects like health care, education and immigration. They said they saw little such reaching across the aisle in his absence.

Any member of the United States Senate with a long record will have many moments of compromise, whether between the parties or intra-party. But the idea that Kennedy should be remembered for "making the right concessions," solely in the context of bipartisanship, is a media projection helped along by a right wing who wants to blame Kennedy's absence for political polarization and the eventual death of a health care bill. We see this today with Steven Pearlstein's eleventy-billionth column arguing for the wise, high Broderist, split-the-baby approach:

And while there will be plenty of liberal Democrats who will be fuming about all the compromises forced upon them, somewhere from above will come a familiar voice with that distinctly Boston accent, whispering, "The dream will never die. Take the deal."

Notwithstanding the fact that Kennedy's staff wrote the HELP Committee version of the bill, and Kennedy himself labored over it, and that includes a public option, misses the point of Kennedy's legislative style, which continued to focus on broadening his goals and moving ever forward even when the odds weren't on his side. As Jonathan Cohn writes:

But this notion that Kennedy's liberal reputation somehow belied his pragmatism--a notion already gaining traction in the media, which has turned non-partisan accommodation into a fetish-- misses the point. Kennedy compromised on means, not ends. He would negotiate because it helped achieve his broader goals--signing on to NCLB, whatever its cookie-cutter standards, because it would send money to schools in poor, underfunded districts; embracing the Medicare drug benefit because, however poorly designed, it'd save senior citizens from having to choose between medicine and food.

It was precisely because Kennedy's devotion to his notion of social justice was so clear and dependable that he could make such deals stick. Liberals trusted him because we knew he wouldn't sell out the broader cause. If it was good enough for Kennedy, we figured, it was good enough for us. We knew he didn't see pragmatism as an alternative to ideology. It was just a necessary method of fulfilling it [...]

In the hours since Kennedy's passing, his speech to the 1980 Democratic convention--his most memorable oration, along with the RFK eulogy--has gotten a lot of play. Typically the networks show the final quote, in which he promises to continue his crusade even as he gives up his quest for the presidency. But the more important passage is where he invokes Franklin Roosevelt as an unabashed defender of the common man against the forces--and, yes, the people--who would disregard his well-being. Like FDR, Kennedy was not afraid to talk about values, to talk about right and wrong. Now that Kennedy is gone, who will pick up that torch?

Blue Dogs and ConservaDems have high praise for compromise these days, but their version of it basically preserves corporate goals and sells out their constituents in the exchange. Kennedy's version was precisely the opposite. His concern was "the least among us," the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the less fortunate. He tried to get something for them, whenever possible. Pundits can call that "bipartisanship" but they ought to understand what that means.

The deviousness of the conservative project, to lament Kennedy's passing because now wild-eyed ideologues (like Max Baucus?) will go crazy, is clear. The true scoundrels, however, are those in the press trying to position the life of the man who did as much to advance the causes of the voiceless as anyone in the history of the Senate as someone who preferred half a loaf. Democrats should take a better lesson.

No, mere words cannot honor Ted Kennedy's memory. To pretend otherwise would be to cheapen his legacy, to lie about who Ted Kennedy really was. He was, for the vast majority of his life, a fiercely ideological public servant. It was his commitment to that New Deal social compact which defined him, which made him relevant to you and me. And his actions, not his words, were what marked him as the greatest Senator of his era. To attempt to honor Ted Kennedy without striving to further his life's work is simply impossible.

When Paul Wellstone died they told us that we couldn't celebrate him him as a political actor, that to do so would be crass and opportunistic. But the entire reason we knew Paul Wellstone, the reason we were crushed by his passing, was his political activism. It would have been a lie not to celebrate that legacy. It would have been crass to act as if Paul Wellstone hadn't been first and foremost a progressive hero, to feign nonchalance over political concerns as we eulogized the man, and in so doing stripping him of his essence. Likewise, it would be a lie today to pretend that the reason we loved Ted Kennedy had nothing to do with his leadership for working people. And it would be crass to attempt to celebrate him with mere words, rather than the action he demanded from us in life. How can we not "politicize" his legacy? The man was who he was because of his wholehearted commitment to his politics. The real obscenity -- the real opportunism -- would be for his political opponents to now try and depoliticize a quintessentially political life.

...George Steph agrees: Kennedy would have ditched the public option. Amazing how Kennedy's beliefs, after his death, line up perfectly with the beliefs of the blow-dried commentariat, n'est-ce pas? Lawrence O'Donnell, by the way, has a different perspective:

"Senator not an easy compromiser on health care reform. In 1994, I was in the room when he told the president that he believed the strategy should be a Democrats-only strategy and that we should not be trying to reach out and get Republican votes."

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