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He Saw the Promised Land

Rather than enshrine him in a giant marble bust to sit alongside Henry Clay’s, as some have suggested, this is their time to follow in the footsteps Everett Dirksen trod in 1964 and yield to an idea whose time has come, and to build a far greater monument to the legacy of their fallen friend. It’s what Ted would want.

“This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying I will give it unto thy seed; I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither” -Deuteronomy 34:4

“I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the eve of his assassination

One of my favorite images from American History is Dennis Malone Carter’s painting depicting Lincoln’s triumphant entry into Richmond , mobbed by many of the very people he had set free. It makes me reflect on just how much sweeter the moment of victory can be, when it has been achieved after so much toil and misery. Minutes after the events depicted in the painting, Lincoln would actually sit in Jefferson Davis’s chair, which so many patriots had died for his ability to occupy. “I thank God”, he said, “that I have lived to see this day”.

Lincoln , of course, would become the final casualty of the war before he could actually witness the final triumph, that being the full restoration of the Union . Not the old one, but the one to be truly based on “a new birth of freedom.” Like the full attainment of Dr. King’s dream, it was to be a promised land he was allowed to see with his eyes, but could not enter.

When I reflect on the unfortunate passing of Senator Kennedy, just as progressives intensify their campaign to keep the President’s promise to him and to enact what he referred to as “the cause of my life," I’m again fascinated by how often the Good Lord sees to it that some of His greatest creations are allowed, in their final moments, to see the promised land.

Obviously there is no better way to honor the memory of a great American than to show the world that what he witnessed unfolding in his final weeks in Congress was indeed his view of the promised land, and enact his life’s cause. If the once in a generation opportunity we have had since November to finally act has not been great enough, this should be seen as opening up new opportunities. As insensitive as it sounds toward the grieving Kennedy family to look at it this way, these opportunities must be seized for one simple reason. It’s what Ted would want.

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This is the opportunity to force the Senate conservatives (referring here not just to Orrin Hatch and his Republicans but to Kent Conrad and his Blue Dogs), who claim to admire him as one of the Senate’s all-time greats, to put their votes where their mouths are. Rather than enshrine him in a giant marble bust to sit alongside Henry Clay’s, as some have suggested, this is their time to follow in the footsteps Everett Dirksen trod in 1964 and yield to an idea whose time has come, and to build a far greater monument to the legacy of their fallen friend. It’s what Ted would want.

This is also an opportunity for those of us currently carrying on the fight for the Lion of the Senate’s lifetime cause to learn from his mistakes. Ted was very clear about his regrets for rejecting Nixon’s proposal to attain near universal coverage through an employer mandate. Holding out for single-payer, the Democratic Congress under his leadership rejected it, and the uninsured have gotten nothing in the over 30 years since. Later, the failure to deliver on the progressive agenda they’d run on cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994, and despite James Carville’s predictions of “40 more years” it will again if they don’t get something. That is not what Ted would want.

Yes, the Republican Party is in obvious disarray, suffering from their many self-inflicted wounds. No, the Democrats cannot be defeated by this party. But they can beat themselves, which is exactly what will happen if they miss the best opportunity they’ll have in years to show the American people that they are capable of doing something more than criticize Bush’s policies. Fortunately, in staying united behind the public option, progressives have indicated they’re not going to repeat Ted’s mistake of killing any proposal that isn’t single-payer. But we should also be very cautious of Congressman Weiner’s threat to produce a hundred house votes to kill any proposal that doesn’t at least include that option. If Democrats cannot reconcile themselves either with the wing of their party that will not vote for any bill with a public option and the one that will not vote for any bill without one, they will end up getting nothing…again. If that happens, then the only question that will remain for the 2010 midterms is how large the new Republican majority will be. That is definitely not what Ted would want.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not in any way suggesting we should let up in our fight to produce the votes for the public option that Senator Conrad says are not there. But in the unfortunate event that we fail, we have to get a bill that moves us in the direction of increased affordable coverage. The restrictions on private insurers’ ability to deny treatment, which the Blue Dogs seem ready to accept, would do that. In fact, if a public option is going to exist alongside private competition, the lack of such restrictions is the only thing I believe should be considered a deal-breaker. A public option that has to compete against private insurers that cover only the healthiest clients will inevitably become the option covering only the patients with preexisting conditions, the option where the private insurers dump their clients as soon as they get sick….in short, the one that will quickly become the most expensive option, providing the right with more talking points about how this “proves” government programs don’t work, and fueling the movement to dismantle the program. That is unquestionably not what Ted would want.

But moving toward universal coverage, even by private insurers, at least keeps alive the possibility that the above stated scenario does not happen when, not if, we do enact a public option. As disappointing as the failure to get it in this session of Congress would be, at least Democrats can move in the right direction, show the American public their ability to govern, and keep enough of their support to stay in power to finish the job in the next session of Congress.


It is important for progressives to remember that the root word in progressive is “progress,” and progress rarely occurs overnight. They often forget that even Canada ’s program was phased in incrementally. The same can happen here. One way or another we’ll get to the promised land. He did not make it there with us, but it’s what Ted would want.

Mark Bowen
Long Beach Community College District Board