Ted Kennedy's Change Of Heart

Different circumstances create different politics

By Robert A. George
|  Friday, Aug 21, 2009  |  Updated 9:30 AM CDT
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An ailing Ted Kennedy seeks to change a state succession law in order to help guarantee passage of health-care. Irony is that he supported current law in 2004 -- to prevent GOP governor from appointing a Republican to a possible open John Kerry seat.

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There's a definite poignancy to Sen. Ted Kennedy's letter to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and state legislative leaders urging a change in state law to allow Patrick to appoint an immediate successor should the cancer-stricken Kennedy either give up his seat or die in office. The current law, passed in 2004, leaves the seat open pending a special election, which cannot take place any later than 145 days after the seat has become vacant. 

The letter is written with a tone of awareness of mortality -- and the realization that in the current political environment, every vote will be critical on health-care. 

The only problem is that, with all respect to the ailing Senate legend, this is the rawest form of partisan politics -- even for him. He supported the 2004 change -- which was precisely designed by the Democratic-heavy state legislature to prevent then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, from having the ability to fill a possible vacant seat if John Kerry had won the presidency that year. 

In other words, had the pre-2004 law been in place, Kennedy's letter wouldn't have been necessary. Patrick would have been able to appoint a successor at any time. Indeed, it's arguable that Kennedy might have already stepped down given his grave condition. 

But now, the circumstances have changed: Kennedy realizes that -- despite the day-to-day problems of Obama's health-care proposal -- this is the best chance ever to make his life-long ambition, a national health-care insurance, a reality. He can't stand the irony that his absence -- or the absence of another Democratic vote -- might prevent that from occurring. So, he's trying to get a law he supported overturned.  

What makes this even more unseemly is that it hearkens back to how Kennedy first got the seat. When John F. Kennedy won the White House in 1962, little brother Ted wasn't yet of the Constitution-mandated age of 30 to be able to be appointed the seat. And so, the Kennedys turned to family friend Benjamin Smith to keep the seat warm until Ted could run for it in 1962. 

The same dynamics are in play again -- Kennedy is recommending that whomever is picked for the seat not run for it permanently. While that gives a veneer of "non-partisanship" to the selection process, it actually would obviously benefit any other politicians with large campaign war-chests or great name-recognition -- of which there are plenty of both in Massachusetts. Ted's nephew, former Rep. Joe Kennedy, is a likely heir to the seat that has been in Kennedy control  

Sorry, but Sen. Kennedy shouldn't be allowed to have it both ways -- just to benefit his own policy or political preferences. The current law should remain in place and the political chips should fall where they may.

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter.

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