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Back in March, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) greets Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) prior to Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius' (C) confirmation hearing for secretary of Health and Human Services. Will Kennedy's death open up the possibility of renewed bipartisanship on Capitol Hill?
What is the best way to honor Ted Kennedy's significant legacy? A couple of Democrats have already voiced their own ideas about that. Yet by seeming to swoop in and want to take partisan advantage, they are actually missing a major part of what made Kennedy such an effective legislator.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said right away, "Ted Kennedy's dream of quality health care for all Americans will be made real this year because of his leadership and his inspiration." Other Democrats echoed Pelosi's idea. Robert Byrd -- the only man currently serving in the Senate longer than Kennedy -- called for the health care bill to be named after Kennedy. (In so doing, Byrd is ironically following a prediction of Rush Limbaugh's earlier this year).
But in pushing a "win health care for the Gipper" (as problematic as that sounds for fans of both the Kennedys and Ronald Reagan), Democrats are actually doing the departed Ted a disservice. While it is true that health-care insurance for all was Kennedy's "life work," he also didn't just sit around and do nothing while waiting for that day. He got some 300 pieces of legislation into law -- often with a Republican in the White House or the GOP controlling the Senate.
How did he do that? By working across the aisle. Ted Kennedy is likely the only Democrat who didn't mind working with Republicans that his fellow Democrats regarded as lightweights (perhaps because that's how he was seen that way early in his career). Kennedy authored a jobs training bill with Dan Quayle and introduced No Child Left Behind in the Senate as President George W. Bush's first domestic legislative initiative. And there have been numerous others with whom Kennedy has made law.
Barack Obama ran partly with a promise to get beyond the partisan gridlock in Washington. He faces a challenge now -- managing to fulfill both Ted Kennedy's dream and his own vision for a post-partisan Washington. Can he take advantage of the opportunity afforded by eulogizing the "Lion of the Senate" this weekend? He has the ability on such a stage to speak to the country and all sides and put forward a new open hand on health care.
Of course, it couldn't stop there. He would have to follow-up with meetings in Washington with individuals like Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch and John McCain and say to them: "Look, our side has allowed this to get viciously partisan. The Ted Kennedy that was our friend would want us to get something done. Give me something that you think Republicans must have in here to make it work and lets go from there." That would be something that would honor Kennedy's memory AND elevate Obama's "moderate, post-partisan" brand that has taken a beating this summer. If his fellow Democrats don't like it, he can tell them that he's doing exactly what Teddy has been doing over several decades.