How Ted Kennedy fought Democrats To Support Universal Healthcare

It’s the year 2020. We’re in a middle of a deadly pandemic, and on top of that we just experienced one of the most insane elections in our country’s history. At the same time in this election, over 360,000 Americans voted for the Green Party. In 2016 1.4 million Americans voted for Jill Stein. That is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that may have felt disenfranchised or pushed aside in recent election cycles.

When people look at the Democratic Party today do they see a party that is united, or do they see a party that is divided? Political pundits are quick to point out that a new wave of progressives entering the political scene in the last two elections have shattered the unity we witnessed during the Obama era especially the 2008 elections that saw a record voter turnout. It actually goes back much farther than that though. In fact, the split between labor progressives and moderates happened under the Nixon administration and I am about to tell you why. This is the short story of what the Democratic Party once represented and how and why the split ended up happening.

During the late 19th century in the United States, a progressive era starting rising up in the Democratic Party. It was during the Industrial Revolution that robber barons with the likes of JP Morgan, Rockefeller, and Rothschild made enormous amounts of money building railroads, textile companies, oil companies, coal companies, and utility companies that would bring electricity and western conveniences of mass production to the entire nation. Most of the fruits of workers labor was going to the top 1% though. Those three robber barons had a combined net worth of almost a trillion. The workers started forming labor unions in every industry in every industrial city in America, through direct action and striking which turned to violence many times.

By the 1920’s the violence and turmoil had reached a boiling point. Wall Street had been bombed, coal miners were shooting potato cannons at the National Guard, and capitalism almost failed the working man during “Black Thursday” when the stock market collapsed by 13%. This bringing onto the nation a 40% unemployment rate and rising, gave force to greater support than ever before for a progressive agenda and new labor standards. America almost turned to communism when one man campaigned that he could save capitalism and reform this nation to bring the economy back.

Front page of the Boston Globe dated January 5th, 1949 showcasing Truman’s Fair Deal proposals.

That man was Franklin Delano Roosevelt from New York, arguably the most progressive President we ever had. In one decade running under a Democratic platform he had brought a new standard living wage, took children out of the coal mines and into public schools, brought important banking regulation on Wall Street known as Glass-Steagall, adopted Social Security so that a man or woman could retire decently without entering poverty, and made corporations and taxes pay their fair share at 91% as an incentive to invest back into the worker. Roosevelt also brought way greater protections for labor unions under his New Deal that led to a record number of new union membership during the middle 20th century and raised wages in every state. This would be followed by Truman from Missouri who called for a contributory national medical plan for “every American.” This New Dealism would corrode into the Republican Party as well for most of the 20th century, with Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ford which if you compared with today’s politics all three were farther left economically and when it came to healthcare proposals than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and even in many cases Bernie Sanders. However it was also at this time that the Democratic Party started changing into a new moderate wing influenced by increased primary access in deeper red states. After all we must remember that Roosevelt was elected by the party completely ignoring the Southern delegation.

In the 1960’s LBJ declared a “war on poverty” with his Office of Economic Opportunity, passed Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act. It was at this time we reached a very fine splitting point where the Democratic Party would recognize the two separate fights they were trying to accomplish. In 1965 LBJ signed the Social Security Amendments of 1965 building on FDR’s “Fair New Deal”. For the time creating Medicare for all for Americans 65 and older, and Medicaid for Americans who were not privileged enough to afford out of pocket medical expenses. Medicaid was directly tied to the cost of medical care. If you were a middle class kid growing up in the 1960’s, chances are your family was on Medicaid or on private healthcare supplemented by Medicaid and Medicare. Bear in mind at this point, healthcare was not offered by any employer in the country. This concept would not come until later on.

Surprise but no surprise, a lot of people took advantage of it. It was extremely popular. However the federal budget was not expecting so many Americans to use it, so costs skyrocketed in the span of just a few years to the tune of billions over budget. Democrats and Republicans started to split into two factions. There was a few politicians that believed that we could turn to the private sector to solve the crisis. Try to keep in mind the only problem was that it cost too much. Heading into Richard Nixon’s presidency, Senator Ted Kennedy was trying to pass the very first Single Payer healthcare bill into the Senate that would have been fully funded by the payroll tax to address the issue. If it had passed, it would have been single payer healthcare.

Nixon in the year 1971 he met with Sidney Garfield of Kaiser Permanente Corporation to talk about the economic success of a new and emerging business model called, “for-profit healthcare” that was believed could bring costs drastically down for the middle class. In 1973 President Nixon signed the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, which for the first time provided hundreds of billions in funding towards companies that would provide HMO’s through your employer. This forced Americans to receive healthcare through their employer in the form of a for-profit company instead of Medicaid whether they wanted it or not. Snopes actually did an article about this. Even they admit that although for-profit healthcare was not illegal before 1973, this played a huge role in creating the environment in which for-profit healthcare companies were subsidized by government.

This is more or less the system we have today, but at the time Senator Ted Kennedy was a huge critic of the proposal. He called it a gift to insurance companies that were in the hand’s of Nixon’s pocket.

“It’s really a partnership between the administration and insurance companies. It’s not a partnership between patients and doctors of this nation.” — Senator Edward Kennedy

Kennedy tried to convince Nixon to support his plan of a national healthcare system but he refused, and before you knew it Watergate happened and it was too late. However in the 1976 election an unexpected underdog from Georgia then Governor Jimmy Carter rose through the Iowa primaries to became the leader of the Democratic Party. He ran on a platform of reviving FDR’s “Fair Deal” into the 1980’s. He said he was going to do three things. One he promised to repeal the Taft–Hartley Act that weakened unions if a repeal reached his desk. He then said he would push for a guaranteed jobs bill that would give Americans the right to sue their government if they were not given a job. Finally he said he would push for a national healthcare bill which Nixon failed to pass.

Candidate Jimmy Carter greets his followers in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel March 26th, 1976.

Jimmy Carter had other priorities. He would focus on what he knew best which was peace relations such as the crisis in Panama and the environment. By the time Humphrey–Hawkins Act reached the President’s desk, it contained no language to strengthen unions or would include any job rights initiatives for working class Americans. Carter chose not to fight for this language that was pushed by UAW and Teamsters. At the same time, Carter once in office chose not to pursue any nationalized healthcare plan and even going so far as to say that his plan was “too expensive”.

During his presidency he reigned over deregulation only Reagan could dream of. First in 1978 when Jimmy Carter pledged to deregulate the airline industry with the Airlines Deregulation Act, because many believed it would increase competition. In the year 2020, three airlines control 80% of the flight routes.

Did deregulating the airlines work?

“Yes, airline fares were low for many years, and the airline companies became more efficient. However, thousands of employees lost their jobs or were forced into lower wages by two-tier wage systems. Some of the employees’ pensions were eliminated by bankruptcy and were put into the Pension Benefit and Guarantee Corporation, a government-run insurance program that takes over pension plans of bankrupt companies.” — Industry Week

It would setup the environment that would make it possible for Ronald Reagan to fire 11,345 union workers at our airports. Reagan was the leader of union busting, but Jimmy Carter did it first and not in a small way.

In 1981 thought it was perhaps the nail in the coffin. Carter pushed to deregulate the trucking industry to save on gas mileage and costs for the consumer during an energy crisis and recession. Motor Carrier Act of 1980 removed the authority of trucking routes from Department Of Transportation that previously stated that truckers had to pass through cities and small towns on Route 66, and loosened laws for carriers that said they had to hire truckers supplied by the Teamsters. 1981 was a huge shock.

Truckers Feel the Burn of Deregulation : Unfettered competition helps some firms, but workers pay the price in lost wages, benefits.

Although the new deregulation was set to increase competition it did the exact opposite. Between 1981–1990, over 2,000 carrier companies went out of business. Between 1981–1990, truck drivers saw a 27% decrease in wages and union membership dropped from 50% to 20%. Since 1990 to present day, 43,863 trucking companies have gone bankrupt as they struggled to survive with the lowest bidder in a desperate economy with high interest rates.

In response the relationship between Carter and the Senator became extremely strained. So strained that for the 1980 election he decided to run against Jimmy for nomination by telling the UAW not to support him.

“Health reform is in danger of becoming the missing promise in the administration’s plans.”- Senator Ted Kennedy (1977 statement to UAW)

Kennedy ended up campaigning in 40 states, which promoted Jimmy Carter to utter his famous one liner “ I’m going to kick his ass”. Carter ended up beating Kennedy in a landslide by bringing up his “chappaquiddick” incident. Kennedy himself argued many similar arguments you may have heard in recent times, that the DNC had unfairly turned the odds to help Carter. There was bitter contempt and division between Kennedy and Carter voters. It ended with a brokered convention where Kennedy argued his progressive ideas had a better chance at rallying members to defeat Reagan. However the party did not want to take the risk.

Ted Kennedy shaking hands with Jimmy Carter at 1980 DNC convention in Madison Square Garden.

It came to a crashing end when at the 1980 DNC convention when Ted Kennedy showed up to accept defeat and hand over the nomination to Jimmy, he refused a handshake at first and walked off the stage. This would go down in history as the “infamous handshake debacle”, and it was at this time Kennedy failed to unify his followers behind Carter. This was only the beginning. After the party’s election Kennedy told the Teamsters not to endorse Carter, and they ended up endorsing Reagan instead. This turned the workers in that election towards Reagan as the new populist candidate rising up the “silent majority” in regions in the rustbelt and Midwest.

After the 1980 election, progressivism no longer looked like a sign of new hope but an annoyance of “big government” getting in the way. In response Carter lost the election in a landslide victory, followed by two more terms of Reagan and Bush that would introduce many far right policies such as large tax cuts, huge amounts of environmental and economic deregulation, and a refusal to raise the minimum wage for an entire decade. This included before leaving office Jimmy Carter despite opposition in his own party passing the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, which led to the privatization for medical research at public universities changing education forever.

This forced the Democratic Party to make many changes if they wanted to win the future. One of those changes was the introduction of Superdelegates in 1984 to prevent outsiders and fringe candidates from rising up and taking over a party, hurting their chances of winning in the South. 1984 would also be the year which all fifty states were included in the Democratic Primaries for the first time, so Democrats needed broader appeal to win back the voters they lost for over a decade. This is because in 1976, Republicans expanded their party primary campaigns to all fifty states for the first time as well. Historically this was never the case.

After the failed Jesse Jackson and Dukakis campaigns, the party nominated a safe and conservative Democrat from Arkansas Bill Clinton as they sought to convince former Reagan Democrats or “moderates” and “independents” to vote blue. It was a movement called the “the new Democrats” as a return to power. This was ever apparent that while in office President Bill Clinton helped pass two forms of legislation which before received huge pushback from the Democratic Party under Bush, and that was NAFTA and Crime Bill. It was a new era of getting “tough” on crime and welfare reform, a complete 180 degree from Kennedy’s war on poverty.

During the mid 1990’s Bill Clinton pledged to hire a record number of new border guards, and went on to deport twice the amount of immigrants of any other administration in history, and increased the crackdown on new immigrants working jobs. He successfully passed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which for the first time introduced federal criminal punishment for foreigners casting a vote and harsh fines for states. Prior to this many migrants at one point in history could cast votes in local elections. This was at a time when the border patrol’s budget from 1992–2000 was increased by 300%. During this time we also setup the nation’s first highway stops in the country, where federal agents and police officers were given the right to ask for legal papers while traveling on American roads. Sort of like USSR?

This was in serious contrast to Senator Kennedy’s and RFK’s fight for passing a legal amnesty for migrants and passing a migrants bill of rights.

This was in addition to the new Crime Bill passed in 1994, and the 1033 Program in 1997 which gave police officers across the country new financial incentives to ask for immigration papers and enforce the war on marijuana. Marijuana arrests from 1992–2000 jumped by 300%, and budgets for local police departments to enforce immigration laws increased substantially. This led to progressive governors defying Clinton’s new agenda with a rise in controversial sanctuary cities in the 80’s and 90’s, that pledged to protect immigrants right to work and provide for their families by telling police departments they could not ask for immigration status.

President Bill Clinton with Senator Kennedy signing Higher Education Act on October 7, 1998.

In 1993 the time would come again for another chance to pass healthcare reform. This was at a time when Democrats had the House. Senator Ted Kennedy working with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi massively pushed for a single payer healthcare system. The Clinton White House tried to pass their own version of what would end up being Obamacare, and Ted Kennedy again rallied Democrats against the legislation of forcing Americans to buy private health insurance. He felt the Clinton administration had betrayed his advice. What followed was Democrats losing the House for the next decade.

New Kennedy tape shows frustration with Clintons, health bid

“I think everybody understands now that that was a catastrophic mistake. Was there any consultation about this strategy with people in the Congress? No. I don’t know why Clinton decided to go to a different proposal rather than taking what we had.” — Senator Ted Kennedy

“Kennedy believed that the Clintons would try to build upon his own work on healthcare, which spanned decades, as well as that of others in Congress. Instead, Kennedy said, the Clintons established a task force that delayed the proposal for months, losing valuable time.” — Boston Globe (9/13/2015)

The year 2004 would be the last time the party nominated a progressive to their ticket, under former anti-war activist Senator John Kerry. He too lost against the second rise of the Bush/Reagan Republican Party.

By this time period the country was reaching a breaking point. America was getting tired of fighting out in Iraq and Afghanistan. This followed the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression of 8.8 million jobs, which hurt minority communities larger than anyone. The working class wanted to be more inclusive again. They were getting tired of enforcing a racist drug war at the border and started looking at marijuana as drug to decriminalize again. by 2008 19 states had either legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized. Immigrant rights organizations started gaining power and saw a new leader that could represent brown and black Americans into a new era of progress.

The 2008 primaries elections would come back to haunt Hillary Clinton, when Senator Kennedy gave his endorsement to Barack Obama, a rather unknown Senator from Illinois. He was a young new face, he was hoping to become the first black man to be nominated by any political party, and he was thought to be the first progressive nominee to have a solid chance at getting into the White House since Jimmy Carter. On the campaign he talked about ending the wars out in Iraq that Bush got us into, closing Guantanamo Bay and ending the Bush era torture, pushing for universal healthcare, and he inhaled. Could that have really been a pipe dream?

Barack Obama in Hartford, CT with Ted and Caroline Kennedy following 2008 endorsement.

From 2009–2013 Democrats held the House and the Senate for the first time in over a decade, and they had their chance to pass some really progressive legislation. One of President Obama’s first priorities was passing a Universal Healthcare plan, but that quickly devolved into something else. When measures written by the House and Senate were passed, they were rejected by Obama. President Obama ended up working closely with former Governor Mitt Romney and MIT pharmaceutical economist John Gruber as the architects for a new “compromise” piece of legislation, which did not include a national healthcare plan. Many Democrats were shocked.

White House unveils compromise health care bill

Romney: Obamacare grew out of Romneycare

“President Obama’s plan does not include a government-run public health insurance, an idea strongly backed by liberal Democrats but fiercely opposed by both Republicans and key Democratic moderates.” — CNN (2/28/2010)

This healthcare bill passed in 2010 would go onto be known as “Obamacare”, and it would change the way doctors and patients interact. Instead of fixing the price of care and drugs through Medicare, the Patient Protection Program would send money directly to insurance and pharmaceutical companies, forcing Americans to buy private insurance or be faced with a mandated fine that would be waged against lower income communities.

From 2013–2017, in 39 states health insurance premiums more than doubled even before President Trump stepped into office. Proponents of the bill are quick to showcase that 20 more million Americans are now covered under insurance in the past decade, but that does not mean their coverage is affordable. Obamacare has not brought down the cost of medicine, which has seen an increase of 700% since 1980 and continues to rapidly rise. It did not undo Reagan’s 1982 tax cuts, which introduced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement limits onto the patient which changed the culture of medicine.

In the infamous video that made its way online, John Gruber was shown in a speech proclaiming that the American voter was “too ignorant” to understand that prices would rise under Obamacare onto the working class. Forcing healthy Americans to pay for plans they did not want or need, increased money flowing directly into the hands of pharmaceutical companies. Many left leaning publications such as the New York Times and Washington Post have stated very good arguments for why we should turn the faucet off.

Obamacare also changed the way doctors can interact with their patients. Doctor’s offices were told they could no longer keep paper records, and had to switch to a digital database where a patient’s file is based on billing instead. In many cases the software is written to maximize profits under an insurance model. It also removes ownership of files including x-rays from the patient.

Why computerized medical records are bad for both you and your doctor

“The result is that there’s a war taking place across the screen. Like all wars, this one is about money. On one side, your doctor is being forced by the hospital billing team — which actually monitors her EMR screen — to click on various boxes, which lead to another array of boxes, and another, to bill the most for your treatment. On the other side of the screen, an insurance worker’s job depends on paying out the least.” — Newsweek

A question to ask would be Ted Kennedy were alive to see have seen what the bill had turned into, would he have supported it? We don’t have to look far to see that Kennedy pushed against the same form of healthcare under Nixon, Carter, and then the Clinton administration. With each administration actually proposing even more conservative approaches. Looking back in history, President Richard Nixon’s proposal was actually the most liberal of all healthcare policies tried throughout the years which is ironic. Kennedy later regretted not working with him.

In terms of deportations and increase in border patrol agents, President Obama deported more immigrants and increased more border agents than any President in American history up until that point. While Democrats held the majority in both the House and Senate, from 2009–2013 we saw a 20% increase in mass deportations. All together throughout Obama’s two terms he deported a record number 2.9 million immigrants. 57% of those deportations were non criminal families. By 2013 there were 21,391 border patrol agents, an increase of 22% from 2008. During that same time period Obama increased border patrol’s budget by nearly 70%.

At the same time marijuana arrests from 2009–2016 only decreased by 8% according to FBI, and by the end of Obama’s presidency even medical marijuana was still considered a schedule 1 narcotic. After Colorado passed legalization in 2012, Obama watched over the Drug Enforcement Agency raiding 247 Colorado homes, and seizing more than 80,000 plants in one state alone. Which included the bank accounts of legal operations. In Obama’s first three years in office, he conducted 100 raids on legal dispensaries in full compliance with state laws. The raids were conducted disproportionally in minority communities out west.

The 2016 and 2020 elections solidified the idea that progressives and liberals are still divided on the direction the party should be going. Upon the announcement that Biden won the presidency, Senator Sanders announced he would be pushing an “alternative” 100 day plan in the Senate to oppose Joe Biden’s agenda when he enters the White House.

“Am I prepared to support primary challenges all across this country to those members of Congress, Democrats, who are not prepared to move to our progressive agenda? My 100 day plan is going to counteract Joe Biden’s.” — Senator Bernie Sanders (10/22/20 @ Krystal Ball Show)

In the 2016 elections in Philadelphia we witnessed perhaps one of the most bitter and heated conventions since the year 1968, when ten’s of thousands of protestors marched against the convention gates and demanded justice. This division again led to another far right conservative rise into the White House, similar to the 1980 elections where the “silent majority” rose up.

Senator Sanders and Joe Biden in heated argument at sixth Democratic debate December 19th, 2020.

The real question remains, what keeps progressives from rising back into power? Are we seeing a new momentum we have not seen in the past, or was the last election a simple fluke in a short ear of politics?

In January of 2021 the AHIP known as America’s Health Insurance Plans which represents the industry, sent a letter to new President Joe Biden for what they feel should be the next improvements made to healthcare. AHIP represents the insurance industry, and their proposal the Biden administration has recently taken includes zero public option or Medicare enhancement, and asks for an increase in subsidies for insurance companies, at a time when the nation has suffered immense death during a pandemic where we are the only developed country in the world without single payer healthcare. In circumstance what is happening should be considered a grave sin, and should we allow them to get away with this?

In the 2020 elections, every progressive seat in the Senate and House won their reelection. The Democrats now have a majority in both houses and they now have the White House since President Trump lost his election. Recent surveys conducted show that 2/3 of Americans support the idea of adopting a national healthcare as well as 80% of Democrats, and 2/3 of Americans support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana. Over half of Americans supports the idea of basic income. Why then is it so hard after the era of Kennedy for the Democratic Party to rally behind these issues? As a Kennedy once said, one-fifth of the people are against everything all the time.

Like all political parties that are always trying to win an election, many party activists fear that bringing in grassroots and progressives will hurt their chances at winning elections, and that is what they believe. This is perhaps totally irrational, because these are issues that the majority of Americans support. Many grassroots organizations argue that we may need to change the way we elect our politicians in the first place, as over three decades of unfortunate Supreme Court decisions have perverted the idea of politics and parties that are supposed to represent the members they serve.

If the Democratic Party continues to disenfranchise the progressive members of their party, the blues will continue to stay divided with each other. If party leaders want to attract new members going into the next generation, we have to put past fears and feuds aside and work towards a common goal. That really involves simply listening to what majority of your constituents want. By the year 2021 Obamacare may very likely be repealed by the Supreme Court, and that gives us the opportunity to start over with a clean slate. As a progressive I only hope that happens.

I like to leave with a quote by Robert F. Kennedy when he said this;

“To say that the future will be different from the present is, to scientists, hopelessly self-evident. I observe regretfully that in politics, however, it can be heresy. It can be denounced as radicalism, or branded as subversion. There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.”

Independent writer outside of Boston.