Earlier in my career, I was a staffer for U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, one of Washington state's two Democratic senators. I served as her communications director, and in that capacity, on a handful of occasions I had the good fortune of observing Ted Kennedy in action.
One such occasion involved a weekly meeting in the Capitol for Democratic communications staff. The basic idea of the meeting was that communications staff would observe Democratic senators talking about the issues of the day. There was never any interaction between press staff and the senators, although sometimes a leadership staffer would chime in to answer a question from a senator.
Nobody ever explained the point of the meeting to me, but I guessed it was intended to generate leaks to help shape press coverage.
In 2002, one of the meetings focused on prescription drugs and Medicare. I'm a little hazy on the details, but the senators in the room included Tom Daschle, Evan Bayh, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and Ted Kennedy, who entered the room late, as I recall. (Lest I sound like I'm tooting my own horn, none of the senators at the meeting had any idea who I was other than a face in the crowd.)
The meeting's topic was whether or not Democrats should compromise with President Bush and Republicans on prescription drugs, with the key question being whether or not Democrats should support having private insurers (HMOs) offer the coverage, or whether should be part of Medicare itself.
Of the senators, Bayh was the most aggressive proponent of considering making a deal with Republicans to support coverage through HMOs, but even he wasn't tremendously enthusiastic about the idea. After Bayh spoke, Schumer made it clear he was adamantly opposed to privatizing Medicare. (Kennedy hadn't arrived yet.)
Daschle said he wanted it to be done with Medicare, but to him the most important thing was getting something done, whatever it was. Daschle pointed to Tim Johnson, who was in a contest with John Thune, and said he didn't want Johnson to be forced to seek re-election without being able to say that prescription drug coverage had been passed.
After a few minutes, Kennedy entered the room, and as soon as he caught the drift of the conversation, he strongly supported Schumer's position. He said that under no scenario was he willing to do anything that could lead to the privatization of Medicare, saying that he was adamantly opposed to offering up prescription drugs coverage as a private insurance plan subsidized by Medicare -- even if that meant a bill wouldn't be possible.
As it turns out, a bill wasn't possible during that Congress. It wasn't until 2003 that a prescription drug benefit was passed, and when it was passed, it was -- as Kennedy had warned could happen -- a bonanza for the health care industry. (In the wake of the plan's passage, Billy Tauzin left Congress and became the top lobbyist for prescription drug manufacturers.)
Early in the process, Kennedy had worked with Bush and the Republicans, even helping pass a bill he could support through the Senate. But at the last minute, Bush and the GOP stabbed Kennedy in the back, swapping out the Senate-passed legislation with the industry-friendly boondoggle in conference committee.
As a result, Kennedy went from supporting the process to opposing it. Along with all the senators in the room -- including Bayh -- Kennedy voted against the Bush plan and spoke out loudly in opposition.
Despite this history -- which I personally witnessed -- conservatives are trying to tell a completely different story, twisting Ted Kennedy's legacy into something unrecognizable. Perhaps the most clear cut example of this kind of propaganda found a home on Fox News Channel in the wake of Senator Kennedy's death last week.
According to Fox, one of the primary examples of Ted Kennedy's willingness to work with Republicans was his role in the passage of a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2003. It showed, they claim, his willingness to put aside his progressive agenda in favor of bipartisan compromise.
There's only one problem with Fox's script: it's fiction. As I wrote above, Ted Kennedy not only voted against Bush's Medicare Part D legislation, he was one its most vocal opponents.
Early in the process, Kennedy had sat down with Republicans to forge a compromise, a feat they managed to accomplish when the Senate passed legislation creating a prescription drug benefit under Medicare. But when that legislation went to House-Senate conference committee, the Senate-passed bill was thrown out in favor of legislation that Kennedy felt would undermine Medicare and line the pockets of private insurers.
As a result, Kennedy withdrew his support from the process, refusing to support the bill that emerged from conferences. In all, 44 senators -- including Kennedy and nearly all Democrats -- opposed the bill. But that didn't stop Fox from claiming that Kennedy had been a champion of Bush's bill.
Here's video, not just of Fox's false claim, but excerpts from Ted Kennedy's floor speech against the bill, delivered in late November 2003.
The reason for Fox's lie couldn't be more obvious: they desperately want Democrats to cave on the core elements of health care reform, and they think that creating a false narrative about Ted Kennedy will make their wish come true.
Ted Kennedy probably wouldn't want us to pass meaningful health care reform solely to honor his legacy. In fact, of all the reasons health reform needs to be passed, that's probably not even on the list.
But Ted Kennedy's passion for health care reform does inspire us to achieve the goal of universal, affordable coverage. And the record shows us that despite his best efforts, Republicans cannot be trusted to be fair partners in the process of getting there.
One day they'll probably try to rewrite history to claim universal coverage was their idea. But until that day comes, on this issue, they want to stop us from getting there.
We'll never know exactly how Ted Kennedy would have worked with Republicans if he were leading the process of passing this legislation. But there is one thing we do know for certain: he never would have supported legislation just for the sake of getting something passed.
Ted Kennedy put substance over form, and for all the pressure that Democrats are under to pass health care legislation, they should remember that no bill is better than a bad bill.
Paradoxical though it may seem, progressives must remember that the best chance we have of getting a good bill passed this year is if we are also willing to accept a scenario under which no bill gets passed this year.
A half a loaf is only better than a full loaf if you can't get a full loaf. And if it's already turning green with mold, and eating it will get you sick, a half a loaf can be worse than nothing.