How Ted Kennedy fought Democrats To Support Universal Healthcare

It is the year 2020. We are in a middle of a deadly worldwide pandemic where the United States has the largest amount of casualties of any nation in the world, and it has sparked a large conversation about healthcare reform in the United States. On top of that we just experienced one of the most divisive elections in our country’s history. If you look at the way Americans voted, 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. They are looking to seek a vengeance for what they feel is betrayal. 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. The division actually goes back much farther than that. In fact, the split between labor progressives and moderates happened it could be said under the Carter 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 occurred.

On October 25h 1964, Kennedy was lying in his hospital bed on the fifth floor of the New England Baptist Hospital. Walking in you’d swear you were in his Washington office. The Boston Globe reported that the faces were the same, the voices were the same. At first glance it looked more like a political command post than a hospital room. There to meet Kennedy was Angelique Voutselas and Teresa Greenly of his Washington staff when they could get off the telephone and away from their typewriters. “Come on in” came a booming voice from the inner room. The Wednesday before as you walked into the inner room, the first glimpse you saw of Ted were his feet. He would have been lying on his stomach with his feet facing the door. At the other end of the striker frame bed that he has been strapped to since the Northampton airplane crash, you could see the back of his head. “Sit down”, he smiled pointed to an easy chair near the head of the striker frame. It is then you could see the Kennedy smile, feel the still rugged Kennedy handshake. A nurse and male attendant entered the room and took the other half of the striker frame and were strapping it to his back. When it was in place, Ted was sandwiched securely in between the two halves. “I’m about to be turned and I feel like a human rotisserie” he laughed. Within seconds the hospital technicians had flipped the frame over and now Ted Kennedy was resting on his back, a small pillow under his head and his legs pulled up and moving back and forth under the sheet. At one end of the room, perched up high where he can see it easily was a television set, the same one he watched the Bellotti-Volpe debate on the night before. One one side of the room near the visitor’s chair lie a tape recorder he had used to write a serious paper on “economic extremism”. At another end of the room you could see a big poster from the Boston Red Sox, with the autographs of all the members of the team, and a picture of his brother Bobby, get well cards, and bright paintings of boats and the sea that the Hyannisport Kennedys loved so much.

Visitors of Ted Kennedy soon found that his hospitalization hadn’t diminished his appetite for politics, as the Globe wrote “it had increased it”. He might have just as well been sitting in his swivel chair in his Senate office. Within minutes, you expected at any moment he would get up and start pacing the floor as he talks. Mentally, his mind was as inquiring and probing as ever before, but one has a feeling after visiting with him that this was a deeper, more mentally mature man than the Sen. Kennedy before the airplane crash. It was here that he formed his first education opinions on America’s healthcare system. As he had healed enough to walk, he gave tours throughout the hospital of patients being cared for. The Kennedys who themselves had no problem paying for their own medical treatments, started to notice the patients were getting denied because they couldn’t afford their medical bills. This infuriated Kennedy and made him an ardent supporter of adopting a Medicare For All system that he would later try and push through as major healthcare reform under multiple administrations. At the time he would go onto work very close to Bobby through immigration health reform as well, labeling the threat known as the “migrant crisis”

One of Ted Kennedy’s inspiration for moving towards the support of universal healthcare was his brother Bobby Kennedy’s work with Hugo Chavez and his visits to the migrant camps. A sense of despair and hardship that so many of them were facing. He saw the extended bellies of children suffering from marasmus and kwashiorkor, the malnutrition that was so prevalent in Bangladesh and India. Kennedy found that existed in the United States as well, and during the 1960s opened up a series of hearings in the Senate for immigration and health reform, that was set to give all immigrants and American in poverty access right to hospitals across the United States that were being denied because they couldn’t afford the cost of care. It was during this time that he pushed through the 1965 Immigration Act, turning a light to populations South of the border for the first time, lifting the restriction on immigration from only European nations, and lifting millions out of the shadows and giving them a voice they desperately needed.

“Last year during the course of our hearings on migrant health, we had a young OEO attorney that came and told us about a pregnant migrant that tried to gain entrance into a hospital in Edinburg Tx. Didn’t have the $150. By the time even the OEO or doctor was able to get her admission into the hospital which is just a matter of hours later, the child was born and died, and she died as well.” — Ted Kennedy (July 1st, 1973)

Nixon in the year 1971 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. This in theory at the same time dramatically reduced the coined “welfare state” popularized under LBJ plans to defeat poverty. 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. I’m appalled.” — Senator Edward Kennedy (1973 statement)

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 airlines 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 and that had very much to do with Carter’s lasting legacy.

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. He would also deregulate the railroads with Staggers that had the same affect on labor unions under the minor and major routes that went bankrupt in 1980. This was a huge shock to Kennedy.

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. The feud was finally official and Ted Kennedy was enraged and felt betrayed.

“Health reform is in danger of becoming the missing promise in the administration’s plans. You just can’t trust him.”- Senator Ted Kennedy (1977 statement to UAW)

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. Former blue states that voted for Carter were now turning red in record numbers. This time it was Republicans appealing to blue collar workers.

After the 1980 election, progressivism no longer looked like a sign of new hope but an annoyance of “big government” getting in the way. Heading into the 1980s the voters desperately wanted to shrink the size of government. 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. In came the birth of the “Atari Democrats”. 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 and also prevented another 1980 convention. 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, and so in previous decades a candidate could simply win the support of their party without the votes.

After the failed Kennedy, Jesse Jackson and Dukakis campaigns, it was Kennedy himself who had learned a lesson as a progressive Democrat for why he should attempt to work with the other side. When the Bush administration came back around and reached out for support, it would be Teddy and Bob Dole that worked together to pass the most important piece of healthcare legislation in a generation, the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. The party took the same direction when they 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 for the first time in a long time. 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 the 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. As you can then imagine, the divide between the two sides only grew.

During the mid 1990s 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. The bottom line was that it was a radical shift in a different direction heading into a new decade in the post Reagan years, for a party that historically stood for labor progressive since the late 19th century.

“This country is unwilling to really come to grips with this problem. If you have in this country now an attitude that its easier to condemn the poor and disadvantaged and migrants for the problems that we’re facing whether it be crime or inflation or increased food cost, then you are going to find it extremely difficult if not impossible to pass immigration or health reform.” — Ted Kennedy (July 1st, 1973)

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 to New Gingrich, and Senator Kennedy rallied Republicans to vote blue dog Democrats out of office who refused to support his healthcare plan.

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 (2008 Oral History)

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 who called out Kerry as being too “weak” or “far left” to protect Americans in a post 9/11 world. The country was not ready to believe in Kennedy’s vision.

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. Democrats were getting tired of enforcing what they called a “racist” drug war at the border and started looking at marijuana as drug to decriminalize again. By the end of the 2000s there were 19 states that 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. This now started the conversation around healthcare reform again.

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. Most importantly, he was pushing for universal healthcare, and Kennedy saw this as a means to finally elect a leader in the White House who would finally pass Medicare reform. Oh and he inhaled. Could that have really been a pipe dream though?

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. In 2008 Ted Kennedy had passed away from late stage brain cancer and wouldn’t be alive to see what would eventually be nicknamed “Obamacare”. 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)

“Obamacare in 2012, has finally gotten around to admitting what most of the world already knew: President Obama’s signature health law draws heavily on Romney’s own health-care reform effort in Massachusetts when he was governor there. Romneycare mandated that everyone have some form of health coverage or be subject to a fine, set up a health exchange to sell insurance to uninsured people, and also provided subsidies to people with lower incomes to help them buy private plans. So does Obamacare.” — CNBC (10/23/2015)

This healthcare bill passed in 2010 would go onto be called the Affordable Care Act, and it would change the way doctors and patients interact. Critics of the legislation claimed it wasn’t affordable and didn’t care about you. 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. Similar to what was practiced in Massachusetts under Governor Romney.

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 by any stretch of the imagination. 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. This meant that the the blue part would remain divided headed into the 21st century.

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 (11/01/2019)

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)

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 support 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 just as they were when Teddy was fighting Carter. 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. During Biden’s presidency Obamacare may very well be repealed or weakened by the Supreme Court, and that gives us the opportunity to start over with a clean slate. Labor progressives should only hope that is what happens, and many to this day proclaim that the Affordable Care Act may have been a badly written bill.

“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.” — Robert F. Kennedy (Greek Theater, Los Angeles, Calif., March 24, 1968)

A Bostonian for my entire life and always will be.