Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), seeking to lead the Democratic Party on a more liberal course, today laid out sweeping policy proposals and principles that he believes will bolster a party looking for direction following bruising losses in the 2004 election.
In an expansive speech at the National Press Club, Kennedy argued that the Democratic Party should adopt “a new progressive vision” and proposed an agenda that includes providing health insurance to all Americans and enhancing educational opportunities.
“I categorically reject the deceptive and dangerous claim that the outcome last November was somehow a sweeping, or even a modest, or 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,” said Kennedy. “In an election so close, defeat has a thousand causes, and it is too easy to blame it on particular issues or tactics, or on the larger debate about values.”
In advance of next month’s vote for a new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Kennedy warned Democrats not to use their election losses as an excuse move to the political center — to become “Republican clones,” as he put it — but to harken back to the party’s more liberal roots, including its traditional stewardship of such social welfare programs as Social Security and Medicare.
In fact, Kennedy — the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — advocated an expansion of existing entitlement programs by offering an ambitious plan to provide an expanded version of Medicare to every American. Citizens would be allowed to choose between traditional Medicare for their health care needs or private insurance plans under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan — the plan available to Members of Congress and other federal workers.
The proposal, which Kennedy will introduce as legislation later this year, would be phased in over 10 years. Young children and Americans 55 and older would begin getting benefits first, with the rest of the population phased in later. Currently, citizens 65 and older can participate in Medicare.
The plan would eliminate the need for employers to subsidize private health insurance, explained a Kennedy aide. Currently, employers pay about 13 percent of their payroll costs to cover health insurance costs. By contrast, Kennedy’s plan would only cost them 7 percent, the aide said.
Under the plan, employees would see an increase in payroll taxes, but the Kennedy aide insisted it would be a modest increase that would be offset by eliminating employees’ current outlays for private health insurance.
Kennedy predicted that Republicans and insurance companies would “strongly oppose” his plan, “because they profit immensely from the status quo. Right-wing forces will unleash false attack ads ranting against socialized medicine and government-run health care.”
Not surprisingly, Kennedy predicted that Democrats would be nearly unanimous in opposing President Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security by allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes to private investment accounts.
“Never before, until now, has any president, Republican or Democrat, attacked the basic guarantee of Social Security. Never before, until now, has any president, Republican or Democrat, proposed a cut in Social Security benefits,” said Kennedy. “We must oppose it, and we will defeat it.”
Kennedy also laid out his vision for the future of American education, proposing that the federal government fund college education for children who sign a pledge in 8th grade to get good grades, behave well in school, graduate high school and gain acceptance to an institute of higher learning.
Kennedy also argued for more funding for President Bush’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind, and for more money for early-childhood learning programs and math and science instruction.
Kennedy also reiterated his controversial statement that he believes the war in Iraq “is George Bush’s Vietnam.”
“Our challenge now is to convince George Bush that there is a different way ahead in Iraq, instead of continuing to sink deeper into the quagmire,” Kennedy said.