Ted Kennedy's Takedown of Mitt Romney Is a Blueprint for Obama

Democrats used a video of Ted Kennedy as a reminder of his legacy, and how he differed from Mitt Romney on key issues.

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Sen. Barack Obama nabs the endorsement of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy at American University in Washington, D.C.

Can Mitt Romney be beaten by a Democrat who has tested the patience and faith of his party's rank-and-file?

The answer to that question, which faces President Barack Obama this fall, might have been answered posthumously by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose takedown of Romney during the 1994 Massachusetts Senate debates provides a helpful blueprint for Obama now.

In a deeply moving video, Democrats at their convention honored the man who had spearheaded so much of their agenda over the decades, championing legislation on signature Democratic issues as universal healthcare, Medicare, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Head Start, immigration reform, voting rights, and pretty much everything else the party has to brag about. It was difficult, for the many (in both parties) who cared for the senator to see the footage of him valiantly making his last convention speech of his life—in 2008, when Kennedy, wearing a pump to deliver pain medication for the kidney stones he had suffered that day, all the while dealing with a lethal brain tumor, rallied the Democratic troops behind Obama.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

But it was the historical footage of Kennedy in the hardest Senate race of his own life that reminded the conventioneers how they might beat Romney in a time of economic struggle. In the grainy video, Romney—looking much the same, though with a little less grey at the temples—insisted he would support abortion rights. Kennedy responded:

I have supported Roe v. Wade, I am prochoice. My opponent is multiple choice ... When, Mr. Romney, are you going to tell the people of Massachusetts which healthcare program you favor?

When Romney said he had a plan he could show Kennedy, the senator shot back:

Mr. Romney, it isn't a question of showing me your paper, it's a question of showing all of the people in here that are watching the program this paper. They ought to have an opportunity to know.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The exchange reminded Democrats of two things: One, that Romney's flip-flops on fundamental issues like abortion and gay marriage raise questions about who he really is, and whose agenda he'd serve as president. It also reminded voters of the healthcare law Kennedy and Romney worked on together in Massachusetts—a law that has resulted in 98 percent of Bay Staters being covered by health insurance, but which Romney now says should not be replicated on a national basis. Romney's nuanced view—that it should be left to each state to decide to do or not do—is intellectually valid, but gets lost on people who have an almost vitriolic opposition to government involvement in healthcare.

The nation lost a great legislator and dedicated public servant when Kennedy died in 2009, but Obama truly suffered. The hostility on Capitol Hill towards Obama and his agenda would likely have been ameliorated if Kennedy were there. The senator was not only a great bridge-builder among lawmakers in both parties, but he had a way of shaming the Senate into behaving like statespeople. As big as important as he was, Kennedy always understood that the Senate was bigger and more important than he was, and would be around long after he was gone. His presence on the Senate floor was like that of a school principal in a junior high school cafeteria: People just sort of stepped up to the plate and conducted themselves a bit better. Obama's relationship with Congress would certainly have been better if Kennedy had been there to help. But the visual display of Kennedy challenging Romney in 1994 provides a critical lesson for the Democratic campaign.