Paul Nitze: The influence of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy
August 27, 2009
Every time she hosted breakfast for visiting constituents, my former boss, Dianne Feinstein, used the same metaphor when describing the difference between the House and the Senate. In her words, the House was the teacup and the Senate the saucer – if the tea was too hot, you poured it from the cup to the saucer to let it cool off. Myself, I prefer a mug, but I enjoyed the metaphor.
When a hot bill emerged from the House, our constitutional drafters thought the Senate could slow it down a bit and push it toward the middle. The tea would spend some time in the saucer, but eventually it would be drunk. What the metaphor fails to capture is the role of individual senators in making that happen.
Ted Kennedy’s death two days ago has sparked a torrent of “what ifs” about the health care debate. What would the bill look like if he’d been involved? Could he have delivered liberal votes to a compromise bill? Could he have done the reverse and delivered conservatives? Just as it’s safe to say we’ll never know the answer to those questions, it’s also safe to say that a healthy Ted Kennedy would’ve made a big difference.
The signal irony of Kennedy’s endorsement of the president last spring was the fact that it took a dynast to kill a dynasty. Kennedy’s endorsement was arguably the only one that really mattered in last year’s race, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for saving us from another decade of two-family rule. But there is a certain thing about dynasties – sometimes they produce results.
The late senator’s dirty laundry is so well-aired at this point that I won’t cover the same ground. Suffice it to say that even with his name, which was never more gilded than during his 1962 Senate race, he wouldn’t win office today. He was 30 years old during that first race, had never held a full-time job of any sort, and faced strong primary competition from the state’s attorney general.
He never really risked losing again. The same advantages that allowed him to win re-election despite all those personal failings allowed him to navigate the Senate securely. For the last two decades he wielded outsized influence, evidenced by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and dozens of other bills. He never rose higher than Democratic whip, but he didn’t need a leadership position to cut deals.
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Who can assume the mantle of legislative tactician, compromise artist, and alleged guardian of liberal ideals? No one. There is no leadership in the Senate these days. Only one remaining senator, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is truly a master of legislative tactics. He is focusing every ounce of energy on obstructing health care reform, not passing it. Only one Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, has the discipline and energy to get the Democratic caucus in line, and he can’t do it alone. Nor does he have a fraction of Kennedy’s credibility on the health care issue.
When we look back to Ted Kennedy’s first decade in the Senate, we see an institution that’s virtually unrecognizable today. Those were fraught times, like today, but much more got done. And back then it only took 34 votes to bring down a bill, fewer than the 41 votes it takes today.
Two years after his election, Kennedy was able to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a bill dear to his two older brothers. That was his first major speech on the Senate floor, and he made reference to that vote the rest of his life. But that bill would’ve been dead in the water if not for the arm-twisting of Lyndon Johnson, who’d seen prior civil rights legislation fail when he was Senate majority leader.
When the Civil Rights Act made it through, it got 27 Republican votes. A greater percentage of Republicans voted for the bill than Democrats, even though the bill was championed by a Democratic president. Today there is no conceivable health care bill that could garner that many Republican votes. President Obama will be lucky to get five Republicans to cross the aisle this fall, and may lose more than five Democrats.
Don’t think that I see that period of legislative accomplishment through rose-colored glasses. Leaf through a section of Robert Caro’s biography of Johnson to get a feel for how nasty he could be as a man and how unsavory were his tactics. Politicians back then were often cosseted by a less-intrusive press and were less accountable to the public. All of the important deals were struck in private.
But what has become abundantly apparent is that the Senate is ungoverned today. The president cannot exercise control, nor can the Democratic Congressional leadership. Moderate Senate Democrats feel no loyalty to Harry Reid. Without someone who can truly wield influence, someone like Ted Kennedy, you can put the most bare-bones legislation imaginable on the table and it still won’t pass.
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