The media miss the clear implications of Republican comments about Kennedy

John Mercurio has a good piece at National Journal's web page, looking at the dubious media meme that health care reform would have happened by now were it not for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's absence from the Senate.

As Mercurio notes, both Democrats and Republicans have been pushing that idea for quite some time, though for different purposes. But I think he misses a subtle implication in the comments from some Republicans. Here's Mercurio:

Last weekend on ABC's “This Week,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Kennedy's absence had made a “huge, huge difference” in the health care debate. “No person in that institution is indispensable, but Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate,” he said.


For Republicans, it's a chance to humanize themselves at little cost. Worried that they'll ultimately be viewed as the party that blocked meaningful reform, they are using Kennedy as a convenient foil. If only he had been here, they say, Kennedy would have used his magic touch to reach a meaningful compromise, bringing us on board.

What I think Mercurio misses is that Republicans -- including McCain and Orrin Hatch, who he also quotes -- are using Kennedy to implicitly criticize Democratic Senators, suggesting that Kennedy, unlike other Senate liberals, would have caved by now. Here's another McCain comment from This Week:

“He had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations,” McCain said. “So it's huge that he's absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the health care reform might be in a very different place today.”

Got that? According to McCain, had Kennedy been active in Senate negotiations, he would have made “the right concessions.” And what is the key concession Republicans like McCain have been demanding? The elimination of a public option. By McCain's telling, there is no health care agreement because Senate Democrats haven't dropped the public plan like Kennedy would have.

Hatch made much the same claim on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, saying of Kennedy “the first thing he would have done would have been to call me and say, 'Let's work this out.' And we would work it out so that the best of both worlds would work” -- then adding “I would never go to a federal government program. If we do that, we'll bankrupt the country.”

So Hatch, like McCain, claims that Kennedy would have gotten an agreement done by dropping the public plan.

Republicans may be, as Mecurio says, using Kennedy's absence to “humanize themselves” -- but they're also using it to subtly bash Senate Democrats for not dropping the public plan, as they claim Kennedy would have done. Whether that is accurate, fair, or in good taste is for others to decide. But it is the clear meaning of their statements.