Edward M. Kennedy was romantically described as the last lion, but it might be more accurate to think of him as a river. Especially earlier in his long career, he could be tumultuous and overflow his banks, both politically and in his personal life. But mostly he was steady, forceful, and above all persistent. Particularly in the three decades after his failed 1980 presidential bid, Kennedy didn’t so much charge into political obstacles as patiently wear them down. He pressed on the Senate the way the Colorado River cut into the Grand Canyon.
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Kennedy could be a vigorous, unapologetic partisan—as he demonstrated in his landmark 1987 speech condemning Robert Bork, when Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court. Kennedy also executed determined rear guard actions against large components of Reagan’s domestic agenda over his two terms, and did not spare the adjectives in denouncing George W. Bush as his presidency grew more partisan and polarizing after its first months.
But mostly Kennedy was a pragmatist, who understood legislation was inescapably the art of the possible. That understanding developed over time: in 1971 Kennedy myopically helped block a universal health care plan from Richard Nixon —one that included a mandate on employers to insure their workers—because he was pushing his own government-run single-payer plan. But especially after his unsuccessful 1980 primary challenge to Jimmy Carter freed him from the burden of balancing his legislative choices against any presidential aspirations, Kennedy became the Senate’s shrewdest assembler of bipartisan coalitions. He came to share, at a bedrock level, the belief that Lyndon Johnson articulated to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin: “It is the politician’s task to pass legislation, not to sit around saying principled things.”
Actually, Kennedy (with the help of generations of great speechwriters like Robert Shrum) could articulate “principled things” as eloquently as anyone. What Kennedy understood is that there was no contradiction between soaring, uncompromising goals and the inevitably messier work of fashioning imperfect legislative compromises that nudged public policy a few feet down the road toward realizing those goals. Among the reams of outstanding personal reminisces of Kennedy that National Journal has collected today, former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, a pretty edgy partisan himself at times, captured that quality of Kennedy’s best: “The first obligation of a U.S. senator or congressman is to legislate,” Simpson said. “It means putting an idea into writing and then amending, and then hearings, and then floor management, and conference committees, and warding off vetoes. That’s what Ted did. He was a master legislator.”
Kennedy knew something else important too: that the parameters of the possible evolve over time. He viewed social and political change very much as a marathon, not a sprint. He took what he could get: after Bill Clinton’s health care plan collapsed in 1994, Kennedy built bipartisan alliances that eventually enabled the passage through the Republican Senate of legislation that improved the portability of health insurance in 1996, and more importantly, created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program for children of the working poor in 1997. (The latter has proven the most successful new social program since the 1960s.) He realized that on Capitol Hill sweeping breakthroughs were much rarer than incremental progress. Yet no matter how heated the argument, he believed that on big problems, Washington had no choice but ultimately to come together around solutions because the problems themselves would not go away.
In 2006, he played a pivotal role, along with Republican Sen. John McCain, in negotiating a bipartisan immigration reform plan that cleared the Senate with 62 votes. Later on, the deal collapsed when Bush, who supported the Senate approach, refused to confront House conservatives who opposed it. Kennedy was frustrated but philosophical when I talked to him: “The point about it is, immigration is not going away. It’s here. It’s an issue that is going to be here. If we don’t do it [now], next year we are going to have to deal with it.” Kennedy in fact was back in the trenches in 2007 trying to negotiate another bipartisan immigration reform plan. But that effort was much more tenuous and unsteady and it fell apart amid hesitance from the left and ferocious opposition from the right.