Can Ted Kennedy's Memory Save the Senate?

Republicans and Democrats joined together to dedicate the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

President Obama and John McCain agree on at least one thing: The late Ted Kennedy was a model senator, and if others follow his example, there's hope for the chamber that has become so bitterly polarized.

"Yes, a Republican from Mississippi is proud to be here today."—former Sen. Trent Lott.

"There are Republicans here today for a reason," Obama said Monday, speaking at the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate museum. That reason was Kennedy, a "liberal lion" who fought for his beliefs but also for consensus.

At the dedication, Republicans Sen. John McCain, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, and former Senate GOP leader Trent Lott spoke alongside some of the nation's most prominent Democratic voices, all in praise of Kennedy.

"Ted grieved the loss of camaraderie and collegiality," Obama said. " What if we carried ourselves more like Ted Kennedy? What if we work to follow his example a little bit harder?"

The Republican speakers at the dedication agreed with the sentiment that Kennedy represented the best of the institution: that Senators can disagree on individual issues, but agree on a common purpose. "Yes, a Republican from Mississippi is proud to be here today," Lott, said at the dedication. "Oh, yes, we disagreed, we had some fiery discussions, but we came together many times in a bipartisan way to get a result for America."

Added Sen. John McCain: "I miss fighting with him, to be honest. It is hard to find people that enjoy a good fight like Ted did."

The $78.4 million museum houses a replica Senate chamber where students can participate in mock Senate sessions. The goal is give them a first-hand experience in the democratic process—and perhaps inspire a few to seek out careers in public service.

The idea is certainly alluring: The Senate can once again become a place where respect fuels progress.

"We have all seen the polls," Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate leader and a current board member of the Institute, said Monday. One recent example: In November, a National Journal/Heartland Monitor poll found that just 9 percent of respondents approved of the way Congress was doing its job. "We know how difficult it is to serve," Daschle said. "We know people's confidence has declined in government and civic action. But we hope through this center we can change that."

Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate with Kennedy for decades, recalled a key piece of advice he received from him. "It is always appropriate to challenge another senator's judgment, it is never appropriate to challenge their motive because you don't know what their motive is," Biden said. "That's why Teddy was able to so frequently forge compromise."

But whether compromise is what people actually want from their elected officials may be more fable than fact. On a 2014 Pew survey, only 56 percent said they "like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with" over elected officials who stick to their positions.

The period of consensus Congress enjoyed during the 20th century—the Senate that Ted Kennedy joined in the 1960s—might have been an "historic anomaly," as political scientist Brendan Nyhan has put it. During that time, civil rights and race caused a re-sort of the Democratic and Republican parties. As Southern Democrats turned into Republicans, there was a period where both parties were ideologically diverse.

But the idea is certainly alluring: that the Senate can once again become a place where respect fuels progress. Or as Biden put it: "This country hungers for a resurgence of a baseline belief in the system of self-governance, admired for its wisdom in the face of passionate differences."