Edward M. Kennedy may have been the Senate’s last liberal.
Oh, there are others in the Senate who would support the same policies – universal health care and expanded civil rights and a higher minimum wage. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Barbara Boxer of California and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist, can usually be counted on to uphold the standards of the left.
But most on the left have abandoned the word “liberal” for the term “progressive,” an effort to escape the perverted and seamy notions that rightwing talk show hosts have attached to the L word. Kennedy, though, was always a proud liberal.
And why not? Many of the policies he supported during his long legislative career are now taken for granted as touchstones of American political and cultural life.
After Barack Obama’s election – aided by Kennedy’s endorsement during the Democratic primaries – Republicans rushed to reassure themselves by taking to the airwaves and newspaper pages to declare that the country remained essentially conservative. That’s also the default position of the Washington media establishment, as demonstrated by a Newsweek piece last November that described the country as “center-right.”
There is no doubt more people use the word “conservative” to describe their leanings than use the word “liberal.” However, those descriptions may not reveal much about which policies those voters would support, as the angry town hall protests have borne out: How many Medicare beneficiaries have turned up to insist that they don’t want the government involved in their health care?
While the Republican Party found that they could always rely on Kennedy as their favorite bogey-man— reaping a fundraising bonanza from the mere use of his name – there can be no denying that the country moved much closer to Kennedy’s politics over his four-decades-plus in the Senate. Conservatives may have won the battle for idiom, but Kennedy and like-minded liberals won many of the battles for actual policy.
Do you remember when sports programs at large colleges and universities catered almost exclusively to men? I do. Now that female athletes excel on the playing field, few of us can imagine a nation that would exclude women from college athletic scholarships. In 1972, Kennedy helped to push through Title IX, which fostered that change in collegiate athletics.
Before that, Kennedy championed a cause which was arguably even more significant: The Immigration Act of 1965, which ended an immigration policy that automatically favored those of northern European descent. Last year, Boston Globe reporter Peter Canellos wrote: “(The act’s) impact . . .rivals the Voting Rights Act. . .It transformed a nation 85 percent white in 1965 into one that’s one-third minority today, and on track for a nonwhite majority by 2042.”
Kennedy supported sanctions against a South Africa stubbornly clinging to apartheid; he supported increased federal funding to combat HAV/AIDS; he was a sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which banned discrimination against the handicapped. Who would now argue for continuing apartheid? Who would deny access to public buildings to the wheelchair-bound?
As he said, the cause of his life was increasing access to health care, which he began working on in the 1960s. Even though he never saw the comprehensive reform he wanted, he made significant inroads toward universal access. Kennedy championed the program which provides low-cost health insurance to the children of working-class parents, and most Republicans now support it.
Kennedy’s harshest critics believe that nothing should be remembered but his recklessness, irresponsibility and cowardice in the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne. They’re wrong. Kennedy’s significant failings should certainly be counted in the public record. But any fair accounting would also tally his remarkable – and remarkably liberal –legislative achievements.