DON’T USE KENNEDY AS AN EXCUSE FOR FAILURE…. It started in earnest several days ago, before we knew the state of Ted Kennedy’s condition. Conservative senators like Orrin Hatch and John McCain said Kennedy’s absence from the Senate this year made bipartisan health care reform less likely. As the argument goes, Kennedy didn’t mind reaching out to the GOP and compromising on his principles, unlike these other Democrats. Kennedy, they say, could have gotten a deal done.

It’s a weak, and borderline offensive, argument. For one thing, characterizing Kennedy as the kind of leader who sold out liberal ideals for the sake of routine compromise is just wrong. For another, Senate Dems have reached out to Republicans, and the party has made it clear it opposes reform. For conservatives to suggest Kennedy could have persuaded them to embrace the opposite position is a cheap and cowardly cop-out.

Indeed, Edward Kennedy was in the Senate for nearly five decades, and passing health care reform was the cause of his life. If senators like Hatch and McCain were seriously open to the idea of passing reform, and Kennedy really had the ability to persuade conservative lawmakers to embrace a progressive policy, it would have produced a bipartisan reform plan a long time ago. That never happened.

But as today has progressed, Republicans have been slowly but deliberately using Kennedy’s passing as an excuse for failure. Reform could have passed this year, they say, if only Kennedy had been up to it.

National Journal‘s John Mercurio wrote today:

Worried that they’ll ultimately be viewed as the party that blocked meaningful reform, [Republicans] are using Kennedy as a convenient foil. If only he had been here, they say, Kennedy would have used his magic touch to reach a meaningful compromise, bringing us on board. That sounds awfully nice, but it’s still hard to believe that Republicans, 47 percent of whom believe the Democratic bill includes “death panels,” would somehow roll over and obey the man they publicly demonized for decades.

Jamison Foser took this a little further.

According to McCain, had Kennedy been active in Senate negotiations, he would have made “the right concessions.” And what is the key concession Republicans like McCain have been demanding? The elimination of a public option. By McCain’s telling, there is no health care agreement because Senate Democrats haven’t dropped the public plan like Kennedy would have.

Hatch made much the same claim on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday, saying of Kennedy “the first thing he would have done would have been to call me and say, ‘Let’s work this out.’ And we would work it out so that the best of both worlds would work” — then adding “I would never go to a federal government program. If we do that, we’ll bankrupt the country.”

So Hatch, like McCain, claims that Kennedy would have gotten an agreement done by dropping the public plan.

Republicans may be, as Mecurio says, using Kennedy’s absence to “humanize themselves” — but they’re also using it to subtly bash Senate Democrats for not dropping the public plan, as they claim Kennedy would have done. Whether that is accurate, fair, or in good taste is for others to decide. But it is the clear meaning of their statements.

For the record, Kennedy supported the public option. Indeed, there’s no great mystery here — he helped write the bill that was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. If anyone wants to throw their backing to what Kennedy supported, there’s his bill. It currently enjoys exactly zero GOP supporters in either chamber.

Would he have traded away the public option to garner broader support? I have no idea. But let’s not ignore what we’ve seen — a member of the Senate Republican leadership has said, publicly and on the record, that Democrats could produce a deficit-neutral reform bill with no public option and the GOP would still oppose it. Kennedy would have made “the right concessions”? The White House has already signaled a willingness to give away the store, and Republicans slapped the president’s hand away anyway.

Republicans oppose health care reform. That’s their right. They shouldn’t blame Ted Kennedy’s absence and death for their obstinacy.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.