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‘What would Teddy do?’

There are no coal mines in Massachusetts, but that did not stop Senator Edward M. Kennedy from becoming a lifelong advocate of stronger mine safety laws.

He was personally unacquainted with poverty, but that did not stop him from championing increases in the minimum wage and improvements in safety-net programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.

He had no worries about his retirement income, but that did not stop him from becoming one of the most effective defenders of Social Security.

He could afford to write personal checks to cover his health care costs, but that did not stop him from fighting for improvements in Medicare — and for national health insurance.

His death on August 25 brought an end to a career firmly grounded in the belief, articulated long ago by Abraham Lincoln, that the proper role of government is to “do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”

It’s ironic that Kennedy’s liberalism, for which he was ceaselessly attacked, drew inspiration not just from the New Deal but also from Lincoln and from some even older words that we all learn in school: Jefferson’s words about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Kennedy was determined that people not born to great wealth or to other notable advantages — such as being born white — should have a fair shot at that pursuit.

No one, not e ven his mother, e ver claimed th at Teddy Kennedy was without flaws, and the worst of them cost a young woman her life at Chappaquiddick in 1969. Although Kennedy could never fully atone for his sins, over the years he became not only the most reliable of the fabled brothers but also the most respected legislator of his time — not because of his name or booming voice or beliefs but because of his ability to work quietly and patiently, listening to people who disagreed with him and genuinely trying to find common ground with them if he could do so without sacrificing his principles. That was a rare gift, and one that many of us will sorely miss in an era when smackdowns increasingly substitute for substantive debate on Capitol Hill, on TV and YouTube, and in twitterland.

As everyone knows, Kennedy hoped to live to see national health care reform enacted, and in the days after his death many commentators wondered what he might have done if he had been able to rejoin the debate that now seems doomed to end in polarized gridlock.

“What would Teddy do?” We can’t be sure, of course, but we think he might have surprised his friends and foes alike — by looking for opportunities to compromise.

We have two reasons for this belief.

The first is that Kennedy, as he aged, came to see politics not mainly as a contest between Democrats and Republicans but as the art of improving the odds.

What kinds of odds? The odds, say, of a soldier getting home alive from Iraq, or a child getting decent health care no matter where or to whom she was born, or a miner getting through the day without being killed or exposed to black lung.

You improve those odds, Kennedy knew, by doing the small things that matter: getting more armor for Humvees, more funds for state health insurance programs for children, tougher enforcement of occupational safety laws. And you improve the odds of accomplishing anything by reaching across the aisle, as Kennedy routinely did, successfully, to unlikely allies like Orrin Hatch and John McCain.

The second reason why we think Kennedy would be looking to compromise on health care reform is that he learned from experience — and from one experience in particular.

Early in 1974, President Nixon surprised his critics (and his own administration) by endorsing national health insurance. Historians still debate his motivation: was it genuine or did he hope to distract attention from the emerging Watergate scandal?

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Senator Kennedy at the time was leading a Democratic campaign to enact national health insurance. The two plans were not all that far apart, and a compromise seemed possible. But a coalition of labor unions and liberal organizations held out for the more sweeping reforms. With midterm elections approaching, they persuaded Kennedy that Democrats would have a veto-proof majority on Capitol Hill in 1975. So why compromise in 1974 when they could wait a year and get everything they wanted?

It didn’t happen. Democrats won big in 1974 but were unable to move health care legislation in 1975, a year dominated by other concerns such as the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, a severe recession, an energy crisis, and surging inflation. Health care reform slid to the back burner — and stayed there until 1993, and then until 2009.

A few years ago Kennedy told one of his long-time allies — former Social Security administrator Bob Ball — that his greatest regret as a legislator was his failure to listen to Ball and others who argued in 1974 that compromising with Nixon was the most pragmatic way to get health care reform launched at the national level after decades of failure.

“I’m not going to make that mistake again,” Kennedy told Ball. “I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

That phrase became almost a mantra for Kennedy, and it’s not unreasonable to think that he would have heeded it, had he lived. That might have meant shelving his support for a public insurance option (just as he was no longer pushing to get rid of the health insurance industry outright by enacting a single-payer Medicare-forall plan). Indeed, it might have meant cutting a deal with private insurers: they would get 45 million new customers in return for ending practices such as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions — and accepting strong federal regulation.

That would be imperfect, but would it be good? We can’t know how Teddy would ultimately have answered that question, but we can be pretty sure that he would have explored it. And we hope that those who genuinely want to honor his memory will be willing to explore the potential advantages of compromise — for the sake of the millions of Americans who still await the health security that Ted Kennedy promised, one way or another, to win for them.

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