I still recall Ted Kennedy’s speech at the 1980 Democratic convention. It remains the finest, most inspiring political oration that I have ever heard. This is in part because Kennedy was speaking from a position of defeat. He had just lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter. And yet this was a full-hearted, rousing speech delivered by a man who realized that in the battle ahead, the issues at stake were far, far more important than his own loss. Intuitively, he knew that the country had reached a turning point.
Many people are talking about that speech today. Instead of substituting my prose for Kennedy’s, I have decided to quote high points from that speech for the many readers who either didn’t hear it– or don’t remember it in all of its richness. This was a speech written long before slippery political strategists had learned to “frame” ideas as bumper-stickers. In its eloquence, it shows great respect for the English language, for ideas, and for its audience. And, I think, it reminds health care reformers that this is not a time to “yield.”
Kennedy began: “Well, things worked out a little different from the way I thought, but let me tell you, I still love New York.
“My fellow Democrats and my fellow Americans, I have come here tonight not to argue as a candidate but to affirm a cause. I'm asking you–I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice.”
Today, politicians, pundits and even the public seem to see politics as a sport, a horse-race that’s all about personalities and what the polls say about personalities– who’s ahead, who’s behind—what the president could have done, should have done, to keep his poll ratings high..
Meanwhile there is far too little discussion of the ideas and issues at hand. How many Americans know, for instance, what is in the House Bill? Polls tell us that when asked whether they favor the Obama plan for healthcare reform, the majority say “no.” Yet when asked about specific planks in the House Bill (which closely reflect the administration’s priorities), the majority approve of those reforms. This tells us that the media has done a very poor job of conveying the content of the House bill, and a miserable job of correcting the many misrepresentations of Obama’s plan for reform. The press has become too caught up in the inflammatory politics of the debate—and the doubts planted by reform’s opponents– while ignoring the ideas and values at the heart of the debate.
By contrast, Kennedy’s speech focused on issues, drawing a bright red line between a tradition of progressive change that he traced back to FDR and the new conservative ideology expressed by Ronald Reagan, who would be running against Jimmy Carter that fall.
Kennedy talked first about unemployment.
“In this campaign and in this country that we seek to lead, the challenge in 1980 is to give our voice and our vote for these fundamental democratic principles.
“Let us pledge that we will never misuse unemployment, high interest rates, and human misery as false weapons against inflation.”
Here, Kennedy is referring to the conservative argument that unemployment is necessary because it keeps wages low; when wages rise, companies must charge more for their goods, and prices soar. Kennedy took the progressive point of view: unemployment is never good. (Later, the 1990s would prove that it is possible to have low inflation and low unemployment, simultaneously.)
On this issue, Kennedy didn’t waver: “Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy. Let us pledge that there will be security for all those who are now at work, and let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work; and we will not compromise on the issue of jobs.
“These are not simplistic pledges. Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our Party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land.”
Here, one cannot help but think of today’s immigrants–including the legal immigrants who many conservatives argue should have to wait five long years before being eligible for health benefits.
Kennedy continued: “We must not permit the Republicans to seize and run on the slogans of prosperity.”
I recall the slogans of the Reagan years: the conservatives’ insistence that “growth is good” –that even “greed is good.” For growth and greed lead to prosperity–at least at the very top of society, and the chimera of “trickle-down” prosperity for the rest of us.
Today, conservatives insist that we want health care to continue be a growth industry. They applaud the pharmaceutical industry’s double-digit profits – unless profits grow, how will drug-makers produce more new drugs? They want more hospitals, more surgical centers, more diagnostic testing equipment, more diagnostic tests . . . more and more, and more. “Plenty” is never enough. More is always better—whether it’s a bigger car, a bigger home, or more health care.
Progressive healthcare reformers understand that, when it comes to health care, less can be more. Better, safer care is usually less expensive. And, most importantly, progressive reformers realize that if we want “economic justice” in the form of high quality, affordable care for all Americans we need to eliminate the waste in our healthcare system. Granted, someone is profiting from that waste, but as Kennedy observed later in the speech: “Finally, we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance.”
Here I would repeat what I have said in the past: only national health insurance—i.e. a public-sector plan—can be trusted to reduce spending without lowering the quality of care. For-profit insurers lack the standing, morally and politically to make these decisions. A public sector plan does not have to worry about shareholders; its only allegiance is to the public good. And, as Kennedy understood, the public good requires that we rein in health care spending:
“We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real control over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth”
It’s surprising how little the issues have changed in 29 years. In 1980, Ted Kennedy, understood that health care inflation was the inflation to fear most. Looking ahead, he could see that if everyone continued to charge whatever the market would bear—healthcare would soon become unaffordable for many middle-class Americans.
And this, of course, is precisely what has happened.
But Kennedy realized that conservatives were not terribly concerned about the fate of ordinary, middle-class Americans. “The 1980 Republican convention was awash with crocodile tears for our economic distress, but it is by their long record and not their recent words that you shall know them.” He then summed up Ronald Regan’s ideology, and in so doing, offered a glimpse of the future:
“The same Republicans who are talking about the crisis of unemployment have nominated a man who once said, and I quote, ‘Unemployment insurance is a prepaid vacation plan for freeloaders.’ And that nominee is no friend of labor.
“The same Republicans who are talking about the problems of the inner cities have nominated a man who said, and I quote, ‘I have included in my morning and evening prayers every day the prayer that the Federal Government not bail out New York.’ And that nominee is no friend of this city and our great urban centers across this Nation.
“The same Republicans who are talking about security for the elderly have nominated a man who said just four years ago that ‘Participation in social security should be made voluntary.’ And that nominee is no friend of the senior citizens of this Nation.
“The same Republicans who are talking about preserving the environment have nominated a man who last year made the preposterous statement, and I quote, ‘Eighty percent of our air pollution comes from plants and trees.’”
“And that nominee is no friend of the environment.
“And the same Republicans who are invoking Franklin Roosevelt have nominated a man who said in 1976, and these are his exact words, "Fascism was really the basis of the New Deal." And that nominee whose name is Ronald Regan
has no right to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
The cadence was perfect. The applause, thunderous.
What few in the audience realized at the time is that Ronald Reagan would win the White House.
In 1980, when Regan was elected, everything changed. His victory represented a watershed moment in U.S. history. As a nation, we began to turn our backs on the poor. Single mothers struggling to feed their children were labeled “welfare queens.” (Older readers will remember the outrageous stories Reagan told—later entirely disproved—about African-American women on welfare driving Cadillacs.) President Johnson’s War on Poverty was successful: By 1975, 15 percent of American children were living in poverty; two years after Reagan took office, the share of children growing up in poverty had climbed to 22%.
Meanwhile, a president who referred to unemployment insurance as a “paid vacation for free-loaders” would break the unions—beginning with the air-traffic controllers who worried that job conditions threatened our safety.
A president who “prayed” that the government would not help New York City when it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy would cut taxes for affluent Americans who lived in our wealthiest suburbs —while ignoring the needs of middle-class and low-income families in our inner cities.
A president who felt Social Security should be voluntary would be the first of a long line of conservatives—ending with George W. Bush—who would do their best to kill Social Security as a public program.
A president who knew so little about the planet we live on that he thought trees and plants created air pollution would oppose government regulations that strove to protect the environment.
But while Kennedy couldn’t know what would happen to the nation following Reagan’s victory, he did understand the deep difference between Reagan’s conservatism and progressive goals: “The great adventures which our opponents offer is a voyage into the past. Progress is our heritage, not theirs. . . . The commitment I seek is not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures.
Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.
The demand of our people in 1980 is not for smaller government or bigger government but for better government. Some say that government is always bad and that spending for basic social programs is the root of our economic evils. But we reply: The present inflation and recession cost our economy $200 billion a year. We reply: Inflation and unemployment are the biggest spenders of all.
The task of leadership in 1980 is not to parade scapegoats or to seek refuge in reaction, but to match our power to the possibilities of progress. . . .
. . . We are the party of the New Freedom, the New Deal and the New Frontier. We have always been the party of hope. So this year let us offer new hope, new hope to an America uncertain about the present, but unsurpassed in its potential for the future .
To all those who inhabit our land from California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulfstream waters, let us provide new hope that prosperity shall not be purchased by poisoning the air, the rivers and the natural resources that are the greatest gift of this continent. . .
The tax cut of our Republican opponents takes the name of tax reform in vain. It is a wonderfully Republican idea that would redistribute income in the wrong direction. It is good news for any of you with incomes over $200,000 a year. For the few of you, it offers a pot of gold worth $14,000. But the Republican tax cut is bad news for the middle income families.”
1980 was just the beginning of “redistributing wealth in the wrong direction.” From 1976 to 2006 the wealthiest 1 percent of all Americans enjoyed 232 percent of the gains in the nation’s wealth while the bottom 90 percent reaped only 10 percent of the benefits. And in recent years, the trend accelerated. From 2002 to 2006, the share of the nation’s income flowing to the top 1 percent climbed from 15.8 percent to 20.0 percent. Not since 1928, just before the Great Depression, has the top 1 percent held such a large share of the nation’s income. As I have explained in the past, this is why it is fair to now ask the wealthiest 1.2 percent to pay higher taxes to help seed health care reform.
“The vast majority of Americans cannot afford this panacea from a Republican nominee who has denounced the progressive income tax as the invention of Karl Marx,” Kennedy added. I am afraid he has confused Karl Marx with Theodore Roosevelt–that obscure Republican president who sought and fought for a tax system based on ability to pay. Theodore Roosevelt was not Karl Marx, and the Republican tax scheme is not tax reform.
Kennedy ended his speech by congratulating his opponent, adding;
“I am confident that the Democratic Party will reunite on the basis of Democratic principles, and that together we will march towards a Democratic victory in 1980.
“And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our Party in 1980 that we found our faith again.
“And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:
‘I am a part of all that I have met….
Tho much is taken, much abides….
That which we are, we are–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
…strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’
“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
In 1980, the Democratic contest for the White House was seen, by many, as a bitter fight between two very different candidates. But today, when the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle seem so lacking in compassion, so bereft of the will, Kennedy and Carter stand out, more alike than different.
If we are going to achieve true health reform, we need more men and women with “heroic hearts, strong in will, determined to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
This is not a time for compromise.
While Senator Kennedy’s death was expected, it still comes as a shock. I hope that shock is sufficient to rally progressives of all stripes, to come together and make an unswerving commitment to true health care reform—reform designed to benefit patients, not those who profit from a money-driven system.