The credibility vacuum

THE CREDIBILITY VACUUM…. Ted Kennedy’s absence has been felt in a variety of ways all year, but Matt Yglesias raises a good point today about the role the Liberal Lion could play right about now.

I’m confident that were he still alive, he’d be saying what Sherrod Brown and Jay Rockefeller are saying — namely that when a deal like this is on the table, you say yes, pretend to like Joe Lieberman, get the thing done, do some good for the American people, and move on to other priorities. But he’s not alive. And I can’t prove that’s what he’d say. So we’re left instead with other folks like Brown and Rockefeller or just don’t have the same high profile or credibility. Needed to help sell people on this arrangement.

Whether Kennedy would have backed this bill enthusiastically probably isn’t in doubt. Kevin and Ezra point to some of the evidence, but I’d add that Kennedy was a strong backer of Mitt Romney’s health plan when it passed in Massachusetts, which offers a pretty strong hint about what the late, great senator would be thinking right about now.

But Matt’s underlying point is an important one. There were plenty of times throughout Kennedy’s career when he would be part of important negotiations in which he championed the progressive cause. If the resulting bill fell short of liberal expectations, Kennedy would communicate to the left, “This is the best bill we could get.” Progressive groups would believe him — because he was Ted Kennedy. They had confidence that he would fight as hard as he could, and would get the best possible deal. If he said it was worth embracing, it was almost certainly worth embracing.

There is no equivalent today. There are plenty of senators who’ve taken the lead in fighting for progressive elements of the health care reform proposal — Brown, Rockefeller, Schumer, Dodd — but when they tell progressive groups, “This is the best bill we could get,” it simply doesn’t carry the same weight. They’re recognized as progressive champions, but liberals still wonder if they just weren’t tough/smart/strong enough to get a better deal.

What’s more, it’s not just the Senate and it’s not just health care — I don’t think there’s a Democratic officeholder in the country who has a Kennedy-level of credibility with the base. Speaker Pelosi probably comes the closest.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. If Kennedy were alive today and endorsed this health care bill enthusiastically, its opponents would likely still be its opponents.

But the fact that there’s no one with commanding credibility with the progressive base is hard to miss.