Senator Edward Kennedy died last night. He was a great liberal leader in the nation. He was also a great legislator. The practice of making legislation tends to make people act like centrists. If they do not reach across the aisle, they can make great speeches, but rarely pass anything important.
Ted Kennedy's great passion was health care for everyone in America. Early in his career he had a chance to work with President Nixon to pass national health insurance legislation. Kennedy held out for his favored plan, and health insurance for all Americans failed. Kennedy long regretted that he sacrificed the goal for ideological purity.
Centrist legislation always requires compromise with the other side. But it actually accomplishes some good things. This is true for liberals and conservatives. It is also true for centrists, who have to accept attacks on centrism from ideologues as the price for actually accomplishing something.
Ted Kennedy learned that to achieve any legislative goal, you have to plan on incremental changes over a long time. This is how we came to have Medicare, Medicaid, veteran's hospitals, Children's Health Insurance Plans in every state, universal vaccinations, smoking restrictions, drinking restrictions, clean food, air, and water regulations, seat belt laws, noise pollution laws - the hundred and one programs to make everyone's health better and their health costs shared more evenly. And we still have the most elaborate variety and highest quality of fancy health care in the world, though one could not call that a system. All of this was achieved in centrist increments. Some on the right denounce this a creeping socialism, and some on the left denounce it as Big Brother, but few of them actually want to give up the benefits of better health and better health care.
Centrists owe a great debt to Ted Kennedy for his long-term commitment to incremental achievements for a larger social goal.