Why Ted Kennedy Was the Last of His Kind
For Kennedy, there was no contradiction between soaring, uncompromising goals and the messier work of fashioning imperfect legislative compromises
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.
The failure of that effort, which foreshadowed the difficulties Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus has confronted trying to build a bipartisan agreement on health care, showed how the changing institutional culture of Washington has reduced the personal influence of even the most skilled deal-makers, like Kennedy. Kennedy’s great strength, especially after he retired his presidential ambitions, was his ability to build coalitions that others could not have constructed. Because Kennedy was such an icon to liberals, no one else could provide as much political cover for the substantive concessions required to attract Republicans and centrist Democrats into coalitions with his party’s mainstream. He made deals happen that probably would not have happened if he wasn’t there.
But Kennedy’s skill at bridging party lines became less relevant in a political world in which legislators faced increasing pressure to stand with their party—and against the other—on all major issues. (That pressure takes the form of everything from nasty blog postings to advertising volleys from party interest groups to full-scale primary challenges.) As Washington has evolved toward a quasi-parliamentary system, the ability of even the most skilled and personable legislators to unite the parties on the biggest issues has diminished. In today’s Congress, the name on the jersey matters less than its color. Kennedy recognized that change and lamented it. When I asked him in 2006 whether other Senators from both parties were now cooler to the kind of bipartisan negotiations he was undertaking with McCain on immigration, he said, “Yeah. The older ones understand it, but it’s not where it is at now.”
That’s not a good thing. Solutions are more durable when the hands that craft them represent a broad range of viewpoints, both inside and outside of Congress. It may be that the ideological distance between the parties—especially with so many Republican moderates having been defeated since 2006—has widened to the point that meaningful bipartisan agreement won’t be possible on President Obama’s big priorities. But there’s no question that the growing pressure for legislators from each party to line up in lockstep formation hampers progress on the big problems that, in Kennedy’s phrase, are “not going away.” There’s no clear path through that intensifying centrifugal pressure—no easy way to forge agreements that could attract broad public support on issues like health care or climate change. But there’s no real alternative either. Obama and Congressional Democrats are not likely to sustain the country’s support without maintaining Kennedy’s commitment to flexibility and the marshalling of diverse alliances—if possible with Republicans in Congress, and if not, then with outside groups representing the full array of interests and perspectives, including those outside of the traditional Democratic coalition.
In April 2006, at the height of the immigration debate, Kennedy tried to inspire Bush, McCain, and his colleagues in both parties to surmount their differences by recounting how Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen and President Lyndon Johnson had joined in a compromise that finally ended the filibuster blocking the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 2006, the men around Kennedy ultimately didn’t meet that standard. But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong standard to pursue. Shortly before the immigration reform push stalled that year, I interviewed Kennedy, and he offered me an observation that might stand as his legislative credo: “You have to keep at it until you are kind of successful,” he said simply. No Senator in recent decades kept at the pursuit of constructive consensus more doggedly or effectively than Ted Kennedy. The sad truth is that the modern working of the Senate may not allow another Senator to approach, much less match, that record again.