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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Kennedy's journey back to the future

WASHINGTON
FOR HIS annual message to the Democratic Party, Senator Edward M. Kennedy last week drew on three minds influenced by his party's modern architect, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Kennedy built this year's oration -- always studied with care in the political world because for an old, washed-up guy Kennedy has this enduring ability to see ahead -- on a journey back to the future. The New Deal, which grew out of earlier notions of a social contract between society and those who are willing to a work in a market economy, was above all a combination of efforts to promote opportunity and provide security. You want values? Try these: fairness, tolerance, mutual respect -- for everybody. Kennedy chose not to include moving to the center or triangulation among polarized opinions. That doesn't make him more or less liberal than other Democrats; it should just remind those interested in public life that values are deep in a progressive person's soul.

For major examples this year, Kennedy delved into a security theme (healthcare) and an opportunity theme (higher education) -- each rooted in those values and that dream.

Healthcare was the one that got away from Roosevelt. Harry Truman revived it, John Kennedy put it on the national agenda in 1960, and Lyndon Johnson presided over the creation of Medicare and Medicaid 40 years ago.

President Bush is about to try to cut back on Medicare's future benefits, and a national effort is already underway to weaken Medicaid's promise to the needy. He is also likely to fail to fully fund the puny prescription drug program he got past Congress based on a fiscal lie. Kennedy last week proposed making Medicare -- meaning basic health insurance -- available to everybody over the next decade. In the alternative of an individual basis, he proposed giving all Americans access to the private plans available under the federal workers' health insurance system.

Kennedy is not offering this as a bill to be voted on this year. He is offering it as a value, something to organize around and campaign for. He knows, as does everyone who follows opinion surveys, that this approach to cost and availability of health is wildly popular with probably two-thirds of the country that hates the status quo with a purple passion. Medicare works and does its immense job more efficiently than private schemes; by contrast conservatism has yet to provide cost reduction or access to a single American. This is why Kennedy made a point of asserting that Democrats may be a minority in Congress but speak for a majority of Americans on issue after issue.

The principle of security in healthcare stands in stark contrast to a current conservative value. The last thing a sharp Republican wants to see happen in the near term is any serious move toward a system of government pregnancy regulation based on prolife values. If the right to choose were in danger, and thus a top-tier political issue, the Republican ascendancy would be in mortal peril. Those sharp Republicans want the issue more than an actual end to abortion rights.

Kennedy's proposal to make Medicare universal -- both to cut costs, stimulate business, and help working families with what ought to be a basic right in a modern economy -- draws on two more hoary sentiments.

On the campaign trail, Hubert Humphrey (a quintessential New Deal son) always drew roars whenever he bellowed that everyone should vote Democratic so they can all live like Republicans. House Speaker Tip O'Neill offered a different version -- that it was the Democrats (through everything from housing, and transportation programs to the GI Bill after World War II) who enabled the vast expansion of America's middle-class and the creation of suburbia. Without those developments -- and the ugly, added boost after the Democrats led the destruction of segregation -- the modern, conservative Republican Party would never have emerged.

Kennedy argued that as a value, Democrats should stand for more of this, especially in higher education, the ticket to middle-class status in today's economy. There's no bill pending, but Kennedy would love to see conservatives oppose his proposition that any kid willing to work through high school and who gets accepted onto the next rung of the ladder, should not have his advancement denied for reasons involving money.

It's no accident that today's conservatives use style points to attack Kennedy so aggressively. They scream "old" or "irrelevant" because conservatives cannot stand up to Kennedy on the merits. They never have.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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