by Patrick Appel
Ted Kennedy was my senator for sixteen years, from 1984-2000, which means that I caught him in the mid-late years of his career. In Massachusetts, he was always there, a florid monument, and yet, unlike other legislators who become landmarks, he never stopped working. Senators who serve more than three or four decades usually cease being productive well before the halfway mark, and by the end are simply holding the chair until they expire and their state can turn to someone else a few generations younger. Not Kennedy: those years when I lived in Massachusetts were his most productive (think of Americans with Disabilities, Family and Medical Leave, Children’s Health Insurance Program). He didn’t pursue the role of statesman; foreign policy seems not to have interested him much, beyond his opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But if you measure a senator’s effectiveness by his impact on the daily lives of vast numbers of Americans, it’s impossible to think of anyone else in our lifetimes who comes close to Kennedy.
It's always interesting to observe when politicians morph from humans into abstractions, particularly (though not only) in the hands of their political opponents. You see this with Ronald Reagan, who remains to this day the focus of both uncritical worship and fact-averse loathing. Well into this decade you saw this (among liberal activist groups) with Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell; it remains to be seen who among the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld triumvurate will endure as the totemic hate-figures, though my money's on the Dick. Ted Kennedy was like no other Democrat in this regard. Who's gonna replace him, Barney Frank? Bill Clinton has long since wriggled off the hook.
A man of privilege, he was a staunch supporter of the downtrodden, including the LGBT community when there were precious few allies in Congress. He was an early proponent of funding for HIV/AIDS research and care in the 1980s, battling conservative religious hostility and White House indifference to the emerging epidemic. In the early 1990’s he became an early supporter of gay rights legislation and voted to strip “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” from the National Defense Authorization Act in 1993. He stood up as one of only fourteen Senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
There was plenty to dislike about Edward Kennedy and some of the opprobrium he attracted was deserved. Some of it was also an honour: Kennedy was worth disliking and, yes, fearing too. He mattered. His death marks the end of an era. Though his son sits in the House of Representatives, Ted Kennedy was the last of the clan to stroll across the national stage. It has become customary to refer to him as the great "Liberal Lion" of the Senate and, for once, that's a fair description. No Senator in modern times has done quite so much. There is scarcely an area of American life untouched by legislation written or sponsored by the Senator from Massachussetts.
Journalists and lawmakers will talk constantly in coming days about health-care reform as a final tribute to Senator Kennedy, and Democratic leaders will argue that the bill could be a capstone for his legacy. But the legislation that's likely to emerge will be much more minimalist than he would have wanted. And Democrats have to be careful how they play the Kennedy card. To them, "Kennedy" means a career in public service. To many Republicans and centrists, it just means "liberal."
Ted went on to become the greatest of the Kennedy brothers. But it’s worth being clear about the fact that he had such an impressive career in part precisely because he initially got a job he wasn’t qualified for. The Senate operates largely on the basis of seniority. A guy who can enter his fifth term and only be 54 years old is a guy who’s going to be able to wield some major influence for a long time.
Mr Kennedy will never achieve the public sainthood that his brothers achieved. Republicans knew that, especially after he stopped being a presidential threat. That had the effect of allowing conservative activists to underestimate him and allowing conservative senators to work with him. Mr Kennedy found a way to push past his flaws, then use them to his advantage. His brothers furthered the myth that political progress is made by great men at great moments. Mr Kennedy proved that it is often the badly-flawed people, the counted-out people, who really get things done.
Kennedy was beyond reproach. Liberals generally trusted that the deal he got was the best deal possible. That's what made Kennedy a good guy to strike a deal with: His name on the bill brought actual votes and support. And that was only possible because his constituency trusted his compromises. That's not true for the figures left in the health-care debate, at least on the Senate side, and it's a real loss.
Dave Weigel checks in on the war over Kennedy's seat:
All of the potential Democratic nominees have huge war chests and political bases; a GOP candidate would have neither, and would need to gin it up in a couple of months. Still, some ambitious Republican may make a run for it, as the short timeframe of the election reduces the costs and the downsides.
The cold, hard politics of the situation is this: Kennedy’s death makes passing healthcare reform tougher not easier. His seat will likely remain vacant until late January since there will be no interim appointment in Massachusetts and state law calls only for a special election to be held within 145 to 160 days. That is one extra tough-to-find vote Democrats will need if they try and shut down any GOP filibuster attempts. And if Democrats try to ram through a bill under reconciliation, a special budget procedure, Kennedy could have been helpful in rallying squeamish Dems and lobbying groups for the tough parliamentary battle, points out veteran Capitol Hill watcher Pete Davis, who tracks Washington politics for financial institutions.
[R]eflexive punditry--the urge to claim omniscience about politics--arises out of the 24-hour cable world, a need to fill time. Yet to so quickly jump to making pronouncements about whether Ted Kennedy's death is a "win" for progressive Democrats or conservative Democrats, Republicans, and their corporate backers (which is really what this is about) suggests the cable news channels have exhausted all the things they have to say about Kennedy, the man. Now, Teddy Kennedy's record of achievement in the Senate is a half-century testimony of all that progressives have brought to this country. And if the cable news can spend a week paying tribute to Michael Jackson's half-century career in music, then they sure as hell can spend at least one day paying tribute to Ted Kennedy's half-century leading this nation. To so quickly turn his death into one event in a horse race dishonors the man and slights his great achievements.
We were never friends; our relationship was professional, but keen and, ultimately, affectionate. I don't remember the last time I spoke with him. It might have been in Iowa, during the 2008 campaign he had the connoisseur's appreciation of Barack Obama. But the last time I saw him that I really remember was a day I stopped by his office to talk about ... what? Health care, maybe the war in Iraq? His dog was roaming about, rubbing up against me, then settling at the Senator's feet. We were surrounded by his oil paintings of Cape Cod scenes. We talked about his painting; we talked about the Cape, a place we both love, little things this harbor, that herring run. After all the craziness, after 40 years had slipped between us, he was completely at ease. I wanted to ask him about those awkward, awful times back when. But why mess with the mood? He had exorcised the demons. He was whole.
TPM has a round up of reactions from politicians.