The afternoon of President Obama's health care speech, I started writing this post:
One thing to look for in President Obama's speech on health care tonight will be whether he mentions Senator Edward Kennedy, and, if he does, whether he frames the mention as a tribute to Kennedy the bipartisan compromiser (for which, see some of the references in my Forbes.com piece about Kennedy, and also David Brooks's New York Times column on Kennedy as "The Great Gradualists) or Kennedy as the uncompromising idealist (see the Wall Street Journal editorial).
The Journal editorial noted that "Most young people who know him for his liberalism might be surprised to learn that he championed both airline and trucking deregulation in the 1970s." The Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby reported: "Once I asked him if there was any legislation he regretted having supported. Yes, he said -- he no longer favored some of the deregulation he had voted for."
Then I was interrupted for dinner and set the post aside. In the event, Mr. Obama did mention Kennedy in the speech. Here is the relevant section:
I received one of those letters a few days ago. It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy. He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal. He asked that it be delivered upon his death.
In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, his amazing children, who are all here tonight. And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform -- "that great unfinished business of our society," he called it -- would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that "it concerns more than material things." "What we face," he wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."
I've thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days -- the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and, yes, sometimes angry debate. That's our history.
For some of Ted Kennedy's critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their minds, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.
But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here -- people of both parties -- know that what drove him was something more. His friend Orrin Hatch -- he knows that. They worked together to provide children with health insurance. His friend John McCain knows that. They worked together on a Patient's Bill of Rights. His friend Chuck Grassley knows that. They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.
On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.
That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.
The White House has also published the text of the letter the president refers to. Here is an excerpt:
I saw your conviction that the time is now and witnessed your unwavering commitment and understanding that health care is a decisive issue for our future prosperity. But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.
And so because of your vision and resolve, I came to believe that soon, very soon, affordable health coverage will be available to all, in an America where the state of a family's health will never again depend on the amount of a family's wealth. And while I will not see the victory, I was able to look forward and know that we will – yes, we will – fulfill the promise of health care in America as a right and not a privilege.
The language about health care as a right rather than a privilege affirms something that a friend said to me after Kennedy's death but before Obama's speech -- that Kennedy's conception of things such as health care and higher education as positive "rights" is a different one from the conception of rights contained in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, which is largely about negative rights -- the right "not" to have the government infringe your speech, or take away your gun, or take away your property for public use without just compensation. Kennedy cloaked all this taking and redistributing and expansion of the role of the government in language that made it seem noble, principled, and selfless -- "moral issue," "social justice," "character of our country." And he used his personal skill to defuse those, like Orrin Hatch, who might have been his political and philosophical opposition. This Albert Hunt column, for example, tells of how Kennedy got Mr. Hatch a Hollywood agent for a recording of Mormon religious music: "Hatch got his CD, and he and Kennedy, after tireless negotiations to overcome opposition in both parties, got their health-care bill."
The point is not to speak ill of Kennedy (who can't argue back), or even to impugn his motivations or sincerity, or that of the president. But the distinction between positive and negative rights is a useful one to keep in mind, as is the way that politicians of both parties use personal favors to defuse opposition, so that law can get made on the basis of favor-trading rather than on the basis of what makes the best sense from a public-policy perspective.