Democrats not only must stick to their principles despite recent election setbacks, but they should also push to expand signature programs such as Medicare, paid family leave and tuition aid, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a speech yesterday.
The speech, billed as a major address on his party's future, was the latest in a series of internal examinations and calls to arms by Democratic leaders reacting to President Bush's reelection and Republicans' continued control of Congress.
Kennedy, the party's liberal elder statesman, said Democrats can again be the majority party only by doing a better job of articulating and delivering key priorities, such as help for middle- and low-income Americans. "We cannot move our party or our nation forward under pale colors and timid voices," he told a National Press Club audience.
Kennedy's boldest proposal calls for expanding Medicare "over the next decade to cover every citizen," from birth to death. Medicare, the nation's largest health insurance program, now covers nearly 40 million Americans, most of them disabled or 65 and older.
Kennedy said he would phase in "Medicare for All" by ages, starting with those 55 to 64. "The first stage of the phase-in should also guarantee good health care to every young child," he said. The expanded coverage would be financed by a combination of payroll taxes, general government revenue, and savings brought about by advances in technology, such as "moving to electronic medical records for all Americans."
The senator took several jabs at the Bush administration, saying it "falsely hypes almost every issue as a crisis." Bush's victory over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whom Kennedy strongly supported, is not even "a miniature mandate for reactionary measures like privatizing Social Security, redistributing the tax burden in the wrong direction or packing the federal courts with reactionary judges," he said.
Touching on many issues, Kennedy said the government should "require all employers to give employees at least seven days of paid sick leave a year." The nation's highest priority, he said, "must be a world-class education for every American." All eighth-graders and their parents, he said, should be offered a contract that "will state that if you work hard, if you finish high school and are admitted to college, we will guarantee you the cost of earning a degree." The guarantee would cover unmet expenses after accounting for scholarships, loans, work study, and parent and student contributions, an aide said.
Like numerous other top Democrats, Kennedy said his party and its candidates must do a better job of discussing faith and conscience. Mentioning "values" 16 times, he said, "Our new progressive vision must . . . speak more directly to the issues of deep conscience in the policy positions we take." While reasserting his support for abortion rights, he said, "Surely we can all agree that abortion should be rare, and that we should do all we can to help women avoid the need to face that decision."
His call for expanding Medicare and other programs puts Kennedy at odds with centrist Democrats who want the party to shed some of its liberal traditions.