The story of how President Nixon’s plan for comprehensive health care for all Americans fell by the wayside in 1974 because Sen. Ted Kennedy thought it possible to get a plan more to his liking enacted after a Democratic President entered the Oval Office has been the subject of several previous posts at TNN, and the Senator’s death late last night has served to remind J. Lester Feder of this. His post at today, in part, reads:

[T]he Obama health reform package Kennedy supported in his last days is similar to one Kennedy helped defeat when proposed by President Richard Nixon. If anything, the Obama plan is more conservative. Nixon would have mandated that all employers offer coverage to their employees, while creating a subsidized government insurance program for all Americans that employer coverage did not reach. It would take a miracle to pass such a plan today—a public insurance plan and an employer mandate are two provisions of the proposals now in congress that are most in doubt.

But Kennedy helped kill Nixon’s proposal not only because he preferred a government insurance option for everyone, but because he believed it was politically achievable. Medicare, the government program for the elderly, was then only nine years old, enacted as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign to expand the social safety net. Liberals hoped this would be a first step towards a national health insurance program that the next Democratic president could enact. That victory seemed around the corner—Nixon proposed his plan in 1974, while embattled in the Watergate scandal.

President Jimmy Carter did not make health reform a priority, however, and Kennedy later regretted rejecting Nixon’s proposal. “It was a rare moment in his senate career where he made a fundamental miscalculation about what was politically possible—a lot of liberals did,” says Yale University political scientist and progressive health reform advocate Jacob Hacker. “What was not recognized by anyone at the time was that this was the end of the New Deal Era. What would soon come crashing over them was the tax revolts” that ushered in Ronald Reagan and a conservative, anti-government philosophy.

For a generation born after the “Reagan Revolution” it’s hard to describe the degree to which Ronald Reagan’s rise to the Presidency came as a complete shock to the liberal elites and intelligentsia, especially in such places as Georgetown and Cambridge. In his autobiography The Prince Of Darkness, the late Robert Novak mentions a column he wrote in 1965 after seeing Reagan speak, when the latter was still a year away from running for governor of California; in it, he compared Reagan’s style at the podium to JFK’s. Novak writes that after the column appeared, his fellow journalist Mary McGrory called him, aghast, to ask how he could possibly compare the late President to a washed-up actor. And the truth is that, as an examination of newspapers from 1976 and even 1979 shows, many pundits took it as an article of faith that Reagan, even if nominated, would meet with the same fate as Barry Goldwater in 1964.