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Yvonne Abraham

Leave Ted out of it

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 11, 2009

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Let’s face it: Martha Coakley is no Ted Kennedy.

Neither is Mike Capuano. Nor Alan Khazei. Nor Steve Pagliuca.

Kennedy was one of the most committed and effective senators who ever lived. Nobody could measure up to his awe-inspiring legacy.

So can we quit with the constant comparisons? How about we assess the people who would succeed Kennedy on their own merits and faults, rather than on which can best imitate the senator we lost?

All four Democratic candidates in the special election to succeed him have sought to wrap themselves in Kennedy’s mantle. But Capuano has laid such frequent claim to Kennedy’s legacy that you half expect him to wear a bracelet inscribed with WWTD - “What Would Teddy Do?’’

The congressman has been hammering away at Coakley for saying she would have voted against a health care overhaul bill in the House because it contains an amendment that would restrict access to insurance coverage for abortions.

“She claims she wants to honor Ted Kennedy’s legacy on health care,’’ he said Monday. “It’s pretty clear that a major portion of this was his bill.’’

But why not focus on Coakley’s own judgment, rather than her ability to mirror Kennedy’s? After all, even without the Kennedy comparison, the attorney general looks pretty bad here: Nixing the whole reform package because of the amendment would have put an end to the health care debate for years to come. There are plenty of legislators in the House with Coakley’s pro-choice bona fides, and they voted to get the thing moving in the hopes of improving it further down the line. Her three opponents are right to criticize her for intransigence.

Capuano made those arguments in an interview yesterday. Then he invoked Kennedy yet again: “I believe Patrick Kennedy’s vote is a clear indication of how Ted Kennedy would have voted on the exact same bill.’’

But those Kennedy comparisons can come back to bite you. Just ask Steve Pagliuca. When the Celtics co-owner entered the race, his campaign kickoff was replete with claims of closeness to Kennedy, and his hiring of two former Kennedy aides lent credibility to the claim. But he recently leaped onto a campaign third rail he helped create: He suggested a series of 1994 ads made by Pagliuca’s media consultant Tad Devine had been unfair to Kennedy’s opponent that year, Mitt Romney. That was awkward.

And yesterday, Capuano undermined his claim as Kennedy’s rightful heir. After criticizing Coakley for opposing a bill that he said contained “a major portion’’ of Kennedy’s legacy on health care, Capuano said he might do the same thing. He defended his decision to support the measure Saturday to move it along, but said he would ultimately vote against it if the abortion language isn’t changed.

It’s not clear the voters are responding to the Kennedy comparisons anyway. Coakley committed the biggest transgression of this race as far as the late senator goes by signaling her intention to run for his seat too soon after his death in August. That hasn’t affected her front-runner status.

It’s time to look ahead. It was entirely appropriate to pick the interim senator - the person appointed to continue Kennedy’s work until his replacement is elected - on the basis of who would best mirror Kennedy and his priorities.

But come January, this is a whole new Senate seat. It will belong to the people of Massachusetts, not the late senator, as difficult as that is to take. We need complete pictures of the candidates’ beliefs and talents going forward, rather than a sense of how they can best imitate Ted Kennedy.

Otherwise we’re going to end up with a US senator constantly compared to a legend. And if you think that’s a good thing, you need to talk to a guy named John Kerry.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.