Now that he’s gone, conservatives can’t seem to say enough good things about Ted Kennedy. He was a pragmatist, a realist, a compromiser, someone who worked in the spirit of bipartisanship. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said that if Kennedy were around, he has little doubt they would have joined hands to "get this done" – this being an overhaul of the healthcare system that Republicans could support.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, the fact that the actual Ted Kennedy had been advocating universal health insurance since the 1970s – efforts the vast majority of Republicans opposed. It’s true enough that Kennedy forged some compromises with Republicans to enact piecemeal reforms. It’s also true that, a month ago, he wrote in Newsweek that "incremental measures won’t suffice anymore." In the same piece, Kennedy addressed the question of whether an overhaul that includes a role for the government would mark a turn toward socialism, as many conservatives (including Orrin Hatch) claim. "One of the most controversial features of reform is one of the most vital," he wrote. "It’s been called the ‘public plan.’ Despite what its detractors allege, it’s not ‘socialism.’"
I don’t doubt the respect some Republicans have voiced for Kennedy is genuine. But the party to which they belong has spent much of the past forty years pillorying Democrats who veered too far left as "Ted Kennedy liberals." These attacks at least had the merit of being honest. Ted Kennedy was an unapologetic liberal who, on issues ranging from civil rights to the minimum wage to healthcare, believed government can and should play a role to make America a more just society. The movement conservatives who increasingly speak for the Republican Party do not believe this. Let’s not fudge the difference or pretend that, were Kennedy around, he would have arranged for everyone to meet in the middle somehow.