Politico forwards spin that GOP would support health reform if Kennedy had been active in Senate

In an obituary for Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Politico repeated the Republican claim that Kennedy's absence from the health care debate prevented lawmakers from reaching a bipartisan compromise, reporting that “Republicans complained that without Kennedy, Democrats were less willing to make the concessions needed for true compromise.” Several progressive commentators have identified this talking point as GOP spin intended to disguise Republicans' obstructionism, with Salon.com's Joan Walsh, for example, stating that “absolutely no evidence supports that point of view,” and washingtonpost.com blogger Ezra Klein noting that Kennedy's committee has already reported out a bill.

Politico forwarded claim that “without Kennedy, Democrats were less willing to make the concessions needed for true compromise”

From the August 26 Politico obituary:

Kennedy could typically work the telephones back to Washington for several hours a day as his energy permitted, and when the bill was finally reported July 15 after a marathon series of markups, he was described as almost giddy, laughing on the phone.

But Republicans complained that without Kennedy, Democrats were less willing to make the concessions needed for true compromise. As Senate action stalled before the August recess -- and the national debate swung wildly at the grassroots level -- Kennedy's absence was felt more sharply.

This was one of the great ironies of the senator's career. For decades, his liberalism and labor ties made him a butt of ridicule for the right. Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) first came to Congress literally campaigning against Ted Kennedy liberalism.

But over time, that standing allowed Kennedy to be an agent for compromise, an independent actor with a penchant for deal-making that even annoyed his own party leaders. This was true on education, immigration and health issues in the past decade. No other single Democrat could provide such political cover for others when he opted to move to the center.

Kennedy was helped by his famous name and liberal credentials but also by his roots in an older, more clubby Senate that has virtually disappeared in the less personal, more partisan politics of today's Washington. [Politico, 8/26/09]

Progressives have identified this claim as GOP spin

Walsh: “Despite Sen. Orrin Hatch's statement this weekend that Kennedy would have brokered a bipartisan healthcare bill, absolutely no evidence supports that point of view.” Discussing Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-UT) suggestion on NBC's Meet the Press that had Kennedy been more involved in health care reform negotiations, “we would have worked it out,” Walsh wrote:

I have to say: Despite Sen. Orrin Hatch's statement this weekend that Kennedy would have brokered a bipartisan healthcare bill, absolutely no evidence supports that point of view. So Democrats must actively refute Hatch's (now multiple) statements insisting healthcare reform would have Republican support if Kennedy were still in the Senate, glad-handing and arm-twisting.

That's completely dishonest. If Kennedy moved hearts and minds in the Senate, it would be by moving Republicans towards sanity. Since I don't believe Republicans have any interest in bipartisan compromise, a healthy Ted Kennedy would be kicking Republican asses -- while possibly treating them warmly in person. A healthy Ted Kennedy would never have put up with the unhealthy politics of the Republican Party on healthcare -- and Orrin Hatch should be ashamed, on the occasion of Kennedy's death, to have said otherwise. [Salon.com, 8/26/09]

National Journal's John Mercurio: Republicans “using Kennedy as a convenient foil.” In an August 26 article, Mercurio wrote:

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.

McCain's words are a touching tribute. But are they an accurate take on today's political landscape? Given the red-meat tone of the GOP's rhetoric this summer, I can't imagine Republicans would have been so kind to Kennedy if he had been healthy and fully engaged in the health care battle. It's more likely that Kennedy, a fierce advocate of the so-called public option, would have fallen into his common caricature of big-government liberal, his name and likeness bandied about with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as emblematic of Democrats' “power grab” and push for a “trillion-dollar-plus government takeover” of the health care industry.

So why has the Kennedy story developed such strong legs? Because reporters are getting fed the string by operatives from both parties, who see it as a way to help score political points at a defining point in the campaign cycle.

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. That sounds awfully nice, but it's still hard to believe that Republicans, 47 percent of whom believe the Democratic bill includes “death panels,” would somehow roll over and obey the man they publicly demonized for decades. [National Journal, 8/26/09]

Klein: “This stuff just isn't plausible ... neither Kennedy nor his staff can make the deals for another committee. In an August 24 post on his washingtonpost.com blog, Klein wrote:

Speaking to George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, John McCain argued that the real hindrance to health-care reform is the absence of Sen. Ted Kennedy. “It's huge that he's absent,” McCain said, “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.”

This stuff just isn't plausible. Kennedy was around in 1994 and there was no deal. More to the point, Kennedy's committee, the HELP Committee, has passed health-care reform. Kennedy's staff, as you might expect, led their effort. But neither Kennedy nor his staff can make the deals for another committee. If Kennedy were in the Senate now, health care would be exactly where it is: Through Ted Kennedy's Committee and stuck in the morass of Max Baucus's Gang of Six.

Meanwhile, if John McCain wants to honor Ted Kennedy, he shouldn't just talk the guy up. He should play a constructive role in passing the legislation that Kennedy considered the cause of his life. McCain says that Kennedy “had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions,” but surely McCain can decide what concessions those should be and present them to Max Baucus -- or the New York Times -- in exchange for his vote.

One of the frustrating elements of the process has been that no Republicans have released a detailed set of concessions that would win their vote. Everyone just professes hopefulness and demands ill-defined “concessions.” Or they say they'd vote for health-care reform if everything were different -- if Ted Kennedy weren't sick, maybe, or we weren't in a recession. The fact that neither event has much of anything to do with the desirability of health-care reform suggests that they might not actually be the core of the problem. [WashingtonPost.com, 8/24/09]

MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell: “They've had a bill, they voted against it. That bill was conceived of by Chairman Kennedy.”

From the August 24 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann (accessed via Nexis):

KEITH OLBERMANN (host): We'll get to the introduction of the death book later on. Probably death spam somewhere being introduced by the Republicans. But for sheer egregiousness, the two senators invoking Ted Kennedy's name into this, I'd like your reaction to that.

O'DONNELL: Well, this is kind of shocking. Orrin Hatch and John McCain both saying that if Ted Kennedy were here, we would have a deal, they would be able to work out a deal with him. This strikes me as them both just trying to portray themselves as reasonable men who could do business with another reasonable man.

They both voted against -- they've already voted on this -- they voted against the Kennedy bill in the Kennedy committee, in the health, education, labor, and pensions committee. They've had a bill, they voted against it.

That bill was conceived of by Chairman Kennedy. He wasn't there at the time of the votes. Chris Dodd was there getting it through the committee for Chairman Kennedy. The chairman made his wishes known very clearly.

John McCain, a member of the committee, Orrin Hatch a member of the committee could have tried to work with Senator Kennedy at the beginning and they rejected that possibility.

Fifteen years ago, Orrin Hatch was also on both the Kennedy committee and the Senate Finance Committee where I was working. He voted against the Kennedy bill that came through the Kennedy committee then. He then personally complained to me about how ugly and partisan the process was, run by Senator Kennedy, in Senator Kennedy's committee. And he was hoping that we would do a more bipartisan process in the finance committee, which we did do.

But Orrin Hatch was not part of anything Ted Kennedy tried to do on this, 15 years ago, and nothing that he tried to do this year. Same thing with John McCain. I don't know why they said that. They know that they didn't at any moment engage in real negotiations with Senator Kennedy this year.

OLBERMANN: It's flack I think they call it when the submariners use it and it's also tasteless but, you know, if you want to invoke Senator Kennedy and live up to his standards, then, you know, act like a senator.