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Kennedy and the Implications for Health Care

Yesterday, Jason weighed in with a response to my earlier post about how, notwithstanding Kennedy's own concerns, the then-hypothetical question of his replacement was moot with respect to health care reform (since his death, in my judgment, makes a filibuster pretty tough for the GOP). Jason writes:

I think Noam might be overestimating the humanity of Republican Senators ... I don’t see anything in Republican Senators’ current behavior that suggests that they’d respond in such a fashion [i.e., not filibustering]. After all, Kennedy’s current situation is plenty sympathy-inducing; and it’s not as if he’s been reluctant to link his personal health battle to his legislative battles for health reform. And yet, how have his colleagues across the aisle responded? By lamenting Kennedy’s absence but, at the same time, using it as a convenient excuse for their opposition to health reform: If only Teddy were around, they argue, he would surely be able to hammer out some sort of compromise the GOP could agree to. My guess is that, should Kennedy die in office, Republican Senators will continue with this more in sorrow than in anger opposition to health reform and use it to justify a filibuster.

Like Jason, I hate to belabor the discussion at a still-delicate moment. But I do think it's a legitimate topic given how heavily it weighed on Kennedy himself. So let me say this: I don't think most GOP senators are any more big-hearted or sentimental than Jason does. The point isn't that GOP senators will be so moved by Kennedy's death that they'd be incapable of filibustering his cherished legislative initiative. It's that, after a week or so of saturation coverage in the mainstream media--of Kennedy's life, his funeral, his accomplishments, his surviving family members, his place in the Senate, the Kennedy family generally, the Kennedy legacy, the Kennedy place in American life, etc., etc.--almost all of it positive, the public will become more sympathetic to his dying wish and less tolerant of right-wing criticism. (That's the big difference between before and after his passing.) That change in public opinion should, in turn, make Republican senators reluctant to undertake something as crass as a filibuster.

Now, obviously, that logic doesn't apply indefinitely. At some point, the Kennedy commemorations will be over and forgotten, and it'll be back to business as usual. But if health care mostly plays out in September (or maybe even by early-to-mid-October), I'd guess public opinion will stay sufficiently sympathetic to make at least a handful of Republicans queasy about a filibuster, which is all you need to take it off the table.

Keep in mind also that what matters isn't just public opinion on the day of the final vote. What matters is what happens to public opinion between now and then, since it's hard to turn people against something overnight if they've been sympathetic to it for a while, even long after they've forgotten why they were sympathetic to it in the first place.