During the last ten minutes of President Obama's address to Congress on health care reform Wednesday, we witnessed perhaps one of the most stirring defenses of liberalism we've heard in years from any politician. Evoking the words and memory of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, Obama demonstrated once again the substantial oratory skills that helped put him in office. As a rhetorical exercise, his closing remarks were about as pitch perfect as it gets.
I received one of those letters a few days ago. It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy. He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal. He asked that it be delivered upon his death.
In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, his amazing children, who are all here tonight. And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform -- "that great unfinished business of our society," he called it -- would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that "it concerns more than material things." "What we face," he wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."
I've thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days -- the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and, yes, sometimes angry debate. That's our history.
For some of Ted Kennedy's critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their minds, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.
But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here -- people of both parties -- know that what drove him was something more. His friend Orrin Hatch -- he knows that. They worked together to provide children with health insurance. His friend John McCain knows that. They worked together on a Patient's Bill of Rights. His friend Chuck Grassley knows that. They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.
On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.
That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.
This has always been the history of our progress. In 1935, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism, but the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.
You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
On Thursday, Rachel Maddow replayed that section of the President's speech and asked a rhetorical question as to whether Obama's soaring rhetoric about Kennedy was merely an homage to another man's liberalism or the first revelation of his own
But Maddow needed only to rewind the tape back a few minutes, and listen carefully to the words the President chose, to get the answer to that question.
Many involved in immigrants-rights and human-rights have fought for years to end the hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric that has dominated the debate over immigration reform. Rhetoric that demonizes immigrants and reinforces right-wing frames about inherent criminality, stealing jobs, abusing the social safety net, or not paying taxes.
Based far more on racism and a fear of cultural change than any factual evidence, the heated rhetoric of the extreme right has infiltrated the mainstream and become the norm. And with that mainstreaming of hate speech has come the inevitable violence that follows. It has been well documented that violence against immigrants (and those who look or sound like they might be immigrants) has grown exponentially in the past few years. From Suffolk County, NY, to Schuylkill County, PA the hate and violence unleashed upon immigrant communities is astounding.
Six boys were charged with severely beating a Guatemalan immigrant with bricks, bottles and rocks as he slept near railroad tracks, an attack that civil rights groups decried Tuesday as "hateful."
Police say six boys, ages 11 to 14, beat the 30-year-old Merida in July in Lynn, a city 10 miles northeast of Boston. Merida was hospitalized at Massachusetts General Hospital for a month with serious head injuries. Merida's brother said the attack caused brain damage.
In a statement, police said the Lynn boys targeted Merida because of his ethnicity. Police also said they were looking into the assault of another Guatemalan immigrant and "the possibility that the attack was not the first perpetrated by these youths.
When children at such early age are filled with so much hate that they are compelled to beat a sleeping man nearly to death, leaving him with permanent brain damage, simply because if the color of his skin it seems we are light years way from the President's soaring rhetoric about a nation of character.
But then again, he too must share some blame for the culture of hate that has sprung up.
For all the flowery words and poignant remarks about race he's made throughout his campaign and presidency, when push comes to shove, he has been all too ready to embrace the rhetoric and policies of the right when it's politically expedient.
"There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally".
And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up -- under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.
The President is a man who chooses his words carefully, and his choice of the words "illegal immigrant" was purposeful and intentional.
He certainly didn't use that term back in the fall as he was courting the Latino vote and always called those without proper authorization, "undocumented immigrants".
In fact, the change was a a conscious decision made months ago by the President, Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chuck Schumer when they first began to lay the groundwork for moving forward on immigration reform legislation and felt the need to look and act tough on immigration in hopes of winning over Republicans.
Some might argue that it's only a matter of semantics …. But let me assure you, that for those on the receiving end of that de facto racial slur it makes a difference. As it does for those who listen for the dog whistles of hate to justify their own warped beliefs and actions.
The President plays a very dangerous game when he flirts with the rhetoric of the right or embraces their policies like 287(g), E-verify, or increased detention and deportation, as a means to mollify the right in hopes that they might work with him on immigration reform in the future.
From a political perspective it seems that the lessons that should have been learned over the last few months of the health care debate about the willingness of the right to compromise have been lost on Mr. Obama. He willingly conceded on single-payer, wavers on the public option, and throws millions of immigrants and women under the bus, denying them any opportunity to access the health care we continually hear should be a right for all ...and for what? Has it gotten him a single extra Republican vote?
But more importantly, it is a matter of what Senator Kennedy would call "a moral issue, a fundamental principle of social justice and the character of our country." It's matter of simple human dignity, and the rights of all to live without fear or violence. Obama's willingness to dance with the devil has real-life consequences for millions and allows those who wish to push the debate to the extreme the opportunity to move the bar just one step further to the right. One step closer to the dark nether regions of their twisted souls.
My good friend Marisa Treviño over at Latina Lista has a good take on this