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Ted Kennedy and the Death of Liberalism

August 26, 2009


By Thought Merchant

There was a time in America when politicians stood for progressive causes with courage and passion. From Franklin Roosevelt to J.F.K., a liberal policy agenda was a strong part of both the Democratic Party and the American political discourse overall. In modern history few politicians embodied these liberal notions better than Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. His unyielding fight on issues ranging from civil rights to health care reform marks a dedication to progressive ideals that merits great respect for his conviction at the least, but more appropriately his recognition as one of America’s greatest and most productive political figures.  As stated in this article:

Over 300 bills written by Kennedy were passed into law, many of which greatly impacted the lives of all Americans. His legacy includes an increase in the minimum wage in 1981, easier access to health care for the poor, funding for Meals on Wheels for indigent seniors, reducing the voting age from 21 to 18, and Title IX, which obliged schools to fund women’s athletics at the same level as men’s.

Kennedy also played a major role in passing the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which redressed accessibility problems for disabled people; the 1990 Ryan White AIDS Care Act; and the 1997 State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which provided coverage for uninsured children.

The senator was a dedicated champion of civil rights, arguing forcefully for immigration reform, same-sex marriage and hate crimes legislation, while inveighing against warrantless wiretapping and discriminatory voter ID laws.”

Such a strong legislative record did nothing to halt the ideological onslaught that was brought about by the Reagan Revolution which occurred after the 1980 election. Ronald Reagan ran on a platform which argued that “government cannot solve our problems because government is the problem.” His hardcore aversion to liberal policy was seemingly harsh and severe in the face of what was considered one of the weakest Presidencies to that point, that of Jimmy Carter, the man who Ted Kennedy begrudgingly allowed to run at the top of the Democratic Party ticket in 1980.

Reagan’s popularity was caused by his ability to restore American pride and confidence after four years of a Carter administration that seemed to allow itself to be bullied by the most obscure foreign enemies. Furthermore, Reagan’s regressive tax policies, and trends toward deregulation, helped bolster economic growth–though built on a house of cards–after the nation was suffering double digit inflation under his Democratic predecessor.

If winning 44 of the 50 states in his election against Jimmy Carter wasn’t a bad enough attack on liberal political ideology, Reagan’s securing re-election by gaining a 49 state victory over Walter Mondale in 1988 put progressive government policy on a death bead upon which it rests to this day.

After such popularity the political tone of the country became so conservative that the first Democratic President since Reagan echoed his aversion to big government, championed the use of the death penalty, signed regressive welfare legislation, and put forth some of most extreme economic de-regulation the nation had seen since the Great Depression. That President was of course, Bill Clinton.

Today we have a man in the White House who some consider to be the true inheritor of the Kennedy legacy, President Barack Obama. Without doubt the oratory skill, youthful appeal and charm manifested by the Kennedy brothers is quite evident in Obama. But as a presidential candidate who received more money from Wall Street insiders and Private Equity firms than any in American history, how serious can we expect Mr. Obama to be about  bringing forth a liberal policy agenda? Obama himself lauded Reagan as being a transformational President more so than any of his recent predecessors.  Moreover, with men like Larry Summers, who helped spearhead the devastating financial deregulation that occurred under Bill Clinton, combined with Timothy Geithner, who chaired the Federal Reserve of New York while financial institutions were laced with sub-prime mortgage related instruments leading his financial team, how can we possibly expect President Obama to implement the regulatory mechanisms needed to put Wall Street in order?

The tragic irony of Ted Kennedy’s death is that the one policy issue that was his career passion is now being bungled by a Democratic Congress that is so laced with Health Insurance Company money that the Democratic Chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee, the man most responsible for the future of Health Care in that chamber, receives more Health Care lobbyist money than many of his Republican opponents.

Therefore when gauging what truly caused the death of liberalism in this country true progressives should not lay blame on the Republican party wholly. For when Democrats have complete control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency the question isn’t if liberalism is dead because the Democrats sold out, its how much have the lobbyists and the Democrats decided to buy in, together.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2009 8:29 pm

    Very thought provoking and insightful so i can hear the AutoTune Remix to Blame on the Alcohol to Blame on the Game… Health Insurance Companies are playing the money game pay 2 play. I still Kennedy’s Legacy intact though and liberalism is far from dead maybe in a coma LOL but not dead.

  2. brae permalink
    August 26, 2009 9:11 pm

    Ted Kenndy’s passing represents the end of an era. He was a true champion of social justice and a statesman. He was the only real “liberal” I’ve seen in my lifetime, and the news of his death left me with a “pit-in-my-stomach, what happens now?” kind-of- feeling. You’ve captured that feeling perfectly in this post.

    The legislative accomplishments you cite to show what can be achieved with true passion; an unwillingness to compromise, regardless of the political climate; and the class and tact to reach out to those across the aisle and treat them with dignity, regardless of their political beliefs. Town Halls and Pat Buchanan unequivocally demonstrate that dignity and class are not apparent in today’s political arena. Whether passion will resurface remains to be seen. This post encourages us to insist on these qualities in all of our elected officials and to remind them that the rhetoric of “hope and change” needs to be supported by respectful dialogue and true dedication.

  3. Joy I. Green-McGann permalink
    August 27, 2009 12:21 am

    Selfless Statesmen, such as the late Senator Ted Kennedy, seem to be few and far between these days. Public servants who pledge their lives to making the lives of Americans better, seem not to exist. I agree that the Reagan era ushered in a new type of selfish focus, an era of conspicuous consumption and reverence for money and material goods. Post civil rights, post the Vietnam War, post Carter and Iran-Contra, Reagan shifted the focus of a perhaps weary nation to that which is superfluous. The continued de-regulation of Wall Street under the Clinton Administration, took the nation further down the materialist road, and the George W. Bush Administration created a free for all with none of the restraint or restrictions imposed by morality, temperance, concern or kindness. Barack Obama was elected by a majority in this nation to help turn back the clock. The situation and environment he inherited is treacherous and difficult to navigate. I don’t think that working within the inherited system will suffice to put it on the road to wellness. Compromises with those who are only self-interested will only compromise true and real change. Is liberalism dead? No, I don’t think so. But, I do think it has been seriously wounded and until the Obama Administration understands it must seek to do the right thing by any means necessary, liberalism will not be revived.

  4. August 27, 2009 1:02 am

    While I would say my politics are almost completely in line with the late Senator Kennedy, I must say it’s a helluva lot easier to espouse liberalism in one of the most liberal states in the Union. A state that has voted for a Republican for President once(Reagan, in the aforementioned 49-1 landslide) since 1960. I don’t know that the comparison with Presidents is truly an apples to apples comparison when a president is beholden to the diversity of national opinion. Blue Dog Democrats have formed a more malleable platform because they are fearful of the caprice of their constituency. At the end of the day, as you mentioned, our politicians are slaves to those who will help them maintain power. Were Ted Kennedy in Mississippi I doubt his politics would take the same shape. So, it’s difficult for me to give him points for courage grounded in the morality of liberalism.
    However, he was quite obviously a truly thoughtful and well-educated man who is responsible for legislation that has permeated our everyday lives in a very real and positive way. RIP Senator.

    • August 27, 2009 1:04 am

      Actually they voted for Reagan twice.

    • brae permalink
      August 27, 2009 3:32 pm

      … and Kennedy worked with the conservatives in Mississippi and other states to accomplish the agenda of his constituency.

  5. rene permalink
    August 27, 2009 1:15 am

    God bless him in the afterglow.

  6. August 27, 2009 2:35 pm

    He was great parson…

  7. August 27, 2009 6:26 pm

    Leading requires one to stand apart from the norm. Standing apart from the norm requires independence of mind to be able to withstand criticism. The problem with politics is that one must charm their way to the top. Ted Kennedy didn’t have to charm as many people because he was born into a well connected. Therefore he was able to focus his energies into advancing liberal rights without shaking 2 hands sideways – he was a true advocate, he pursued his constituent’s interests and he maintained his liberal views throughout his career. Not all the legislation he penned or worked on has been successful in acheiving what he sought to accomplish. But this man sure had his heart in the right place. The worst one could say about his character is that he was a rich white man who cared about the downtrodden. Kennedy’s opponets undeniably agree that aside from the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, not much negativity can be spewed his way. Below is a list of Senator Kennedy’s legislative record compiled by Fox:

    1964: Head Start

    — Provided meals and early education to pre-school children through the Employee Opportunity Act.

    1965: Hart-Cellar Act:

    — Changed immigration policy to abolish quotas and lift a 1924 ban on immigration from Asia.

    1968: Bilingual Education Act

    — Mandated for schools to provide bilingual education programs.

    1970: Voting Age

    — Lowered the age to vote to 18.

    1971: Federal Cancer Research Program

    — Quadrupled the amount of money spent by the federal government to fight cancer.

    1972: Meals on Wheels

    — Strengthened the federal program offering nutritional meals to homebound seniors.

    1972: WIC

    — Offered food, nutrition counseling and health services to low-income women, infants, and children.

    1972: Title IX

    — Demanded equal funding for men’s and women’s athletics on college campuses.
    1974: Campaign Finance

    — Imposed limits on contributions to political candidates and set up a public financing option, post-Watergate.

    1975: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

    — Guaranteed free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities.

    1978: Civil Rights Commission Act Amendments

    — Expanded the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Commission to protect people from discrimination on the basis of disability.

    1978: Airline Deregulation

    — Allowed airlines to choose their own fares, reducing costs for consumers.
    1980: Refugee Act

    — Established a U.S. policy for providing humanitarian assistance, admission and resettlement to refugees around the world.

    1981: Fuel Assistance

    — Provided home heating fuel for low-income and working poor families.

    1983: Martin Luther King Day

    — Established a national holiday to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday.

    1984: Improved Access to Polling Stations

    — Required polling stations to provide physical accessibility for physically disabled and elderly people on federal election days.
    1986: Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act

    — Allowed disabled workers to receive SSI benefits and Medicaid coverage.

    1986: Anti-Apartheid Sanctions

    — Banned the purchase of gold, coal, iron, and other goods from South Africa to protest apartheid.

    1987: Even Start

    — Offered early education, family literacy and related services to disadvantaged parents and their children.

    1988: Fair Housing Act Amendments

    — Prohibited discrimination towards people with disabilities in the sale or rental of housing.
    1989: National Military Child Care Act

    — Established the Department of Defense child care system.

    1990: Americans with Disabilities Act

    — Prohibited discrimination against any qualified individual with a disability in job application procedures, hiring or discharge, compensation, advancement and training.

    1990: Ryan White CARE Act

    — Provided assistance to states to develop effective and cost-efficient AIDS care programs, aimed particularly at early diagnosis and home care.

    1991: Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty

    — Halved the world’s nuclear arsenal through cooperation with the U.S.S.R.

    1991: Women in Combat

    — Lifted the ban on women serving as combat aviators.

    1992: Summer Jobs for Youth Program

    — Appropriated $500 million to give 300,000 youth with summer employment.

    1992: Mammography Quality Standards Act

    — Ensured the safety and accuracy of mammograms and promoted the use of the procedure

    1993: National and Community Service Trust Act

    — Created AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service to help expand volunteerism and education grants for students who choose to volunteer for service after college.

    1993: Student Loans

    — Allowed students to borrow money for college directly from the federal government.

    1994: Family and Medical Leave Act

    — Provided up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family emergencies or after the birth of infants.

    1994: Crime Act

    — Secured funding for 100,000 new police officers, imposed new penalties for crimes involving gangs and firearms and authorized the Police Corps, a program to award college scholarships to students in return for a commitment to serve as police officers.

    1996: Kennedy-Kassebaum Act

    — Enabled employees to keep health insurance after leaving their job and prohibited insurance companies from refusing to renew coverage on the basis of preexisting medical conditions.

    1996: Mental Health Parity Bill

    — Eliminated limits on mental health coverage that differ from other covered illnesses.

    1996: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Act

    — Established Welfare-to-Work Initiatives to reduce the number of families dependent on government assistance.
    1996/2007: Minimum Wage

    — Increased the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 in 1996, and then again from $5.15 in 2007 to $7.25 by 2009.

    1997: State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)

    — Supported state efforts to provide health insurance to uninsured children in low-income families.

    2000: Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act

    — Improved data systems and research on the extent and severity of minority health problems, and authorized significant resources to help enhance the delivery of health care to minorities.

    2000 Public Health Threats and Emergencies Act

    — Introduced initiatives to control the spread of germs resistant to antibiotics, and to protect the country against bioterrorism.

    2001: No Child Left Behind Act

    — Required more rigorous testing of public school students and permitted parents to transfer their children from low-performing to higher-performing schools.

    2002: Bioterrorism Preparedness Act

    — Established plan to help the country prevent, prepare for and respond to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies.

    2002: Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act

    — Expanded the country’s intelligence and law enforcement capabilities to help identify individuals who have violated visas or have links to terrorist organizations.

    2003: Up-Armored Humvees

    — Provided funding for additional armor for military vehicles to meet the safety needs of American troops.

    2003: PROTECT Act

    — Provided funding for AMBER Alert notification systems along U.S. highways and awarded grants to states for the implementation of improved communication technologies.

    2005: Gulf Coast Recovery and Preparedness Act

    — Provided emergency funding to assist in the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
    2006: Family Opportunity Act

    — Provided states the opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage to children with special needs and allowed low- and middle-income families with disabled children the ability to purchase coverage under the Medicaid program.”

    • August 27, 2009 10:21 pm


      Thank you for providing that exhaustive list of Sen. Kennedy’s legislative accomplishments. Duly noted.

  8. Gmo permalink
    August 30, 2009 11:16 am

    Ted Kennedy was one of the last public servant who you felt made the plight of underserved communities a top priority. In a very real sense he was the conscience of America. It is void that I hope someone can replace.

  9. October 20, 2009 6:10 am

    He was a sick pervert who drank like a fish. He killed more people than my gun EVER did. We’re well off without him. A tax and spender from the word go who used his Kennedy name to no go and who used Daddy Joe and the Kennedy cash to pay anyone and everyone off.

    Remember Mary Jo.

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