Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death leaves a void in the firmament of American politics, one that will be difficult to fill -- not only because the Democratic Party has no understudy ready for his role, but also because Congress has changed so much in the more than four decades of his career.
Kennedy was the polestar of old-fashioned Democratic liberalism, the constant point against which much of his party measured itself. “The commitment I seek is not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out,” he told the 1980 Democratic convention.
There is no Democrat -- not even President Obama -- who commands so much automatic respect on the party’s left.
A quick survey of leading Democrats on Wednesday yielded only half-hearted suggestions of who could step into Kennedy’s shoes as the liberal standard-bearer: Hillary Rodham Clinton, except she’s no longer a senator; Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), except he’s no bipartisan deal maker; Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), except he’s no orator. Most frequent answer: nobody.
That’s not because there are no Democratic giants in the Senate anymore, although there are none whose accomplishments can match Kennedy’s 46-year record.
Instead, it’s because the Senate is much more polarized than it was when Kennedy arrived in 1962, and that makes legislating -- especially legislating based on bipartisan compromise -- more difficult.
Kennedy was lionized in tributes Wednesday as a peerless deal-maker who knew how and when to work with Republicans. Some observers asserted that if the Massachusetts senator had been healthy, Obama would have a bipartisan healthcare bill in his hands already.
In his pursuit of legislative compromise, Kennedy had advantages over other senators. He never had to worry much about reelection, let alone a primary challenge. The closest he came to losing was in 1994, a Republican landslide year, when he won a comfortable 58% against a capable, well-funded businessman named Mitt Romney, who later became governor. After 1980, he gave up his dream of becoming president, so he didn’t have to worry about challenges to his liberal record by other Democrats.
But Kennedy also worked ferociously hard and built a staff that was legendary for its talent and effectiveness.
In recent years, though, Kennedy’s effectiveness as a deal maker had waned as partisanship increased. His greatest achievements -- the WIC food program for women and infants, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, for example -- came in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. His last big bipartisan deal was the 2001 No Child Left Behind bill with then-President George W. Bush, and that turned to ashes in Kennedy’s mouth after Bush didn’t increase education funding as much as had been promised.
In those efforts, Kennedy’s main strategy wasn’t sweet-talking moderate Republicans into supporting big-government programs. Instead, he delighted in finding common ground on specific issues with real conservatives, such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and then-Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.). He often negotiated independently of his party’s leadership. And then, once a bargain was in sight, he used his legitimacy as a liberal to persuade other Democrats to support his compromises.
That’s where Obama could have used his help on healthcare this year: in rallying liberal support for legislation that could inevitably require painful concessions.
It’s not clear that Kennedy could have won more Republican support for a compromise healthcare bill. Hatch walked out of negotiations toward a bipartisan bill in the Senate Finance Committee last month, and another participant, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), appears on the verge of bolting. But Kennedy still had the ability to bring reluctant liberal Democrats in line, if he chose to, thanks to his track record on the issue.
That was the role Hatch said he hoped Kennedy would play too. “He has the confidence of the principal funders and supporters of the Democratic Party . . . people who will listen to Ted Kennedy no matter what,” the Utah senator said last month. “I don’t know of any other Democrat that has had that kind of swat over the years.”
Instead, at a time when Democrats hold the White House and majorities in both houses, they’re fragmented on healthcare -- especially compared with Republicans, who have found new unity as a minority party with its back against the wall. Liberal Democrats have proposed setting up an optional government-run health insurance plan for uninsured people; centrists have called for abandoning the idea, known as the “public option” -- and Obama has been ambivalent.
On other issues, though, the two parties have been both unified and polarized, with little middle ground. Congressional Quarterly found that Democrats and Republicans in both houses have voted along party lines at a near-record pace this year. Political scientists have estimated that the percentage of moderates in the Senate has declined from more than 40% in 1980 to about 15% now, the lowest since 1879.
So the passing of Ted Kennedy is not only the end of a monumental Senate career, nor just the closing of a chapter in the history of American liberalism. It may also mark the end of an era in the Senate, from a chamber where legislators often crossed the aisle to make bipartisan deals to one where party unity has become the rule.
And that may have inspired the tone of nostalgia in some of the tributes to Kennedy from Republican senators Wednesday.
“In the current climate of today’s United States Senate it is rare to find opportunities where both sides can come together and work in the middle,” Hatch said. “Ted Kennedy, with all of his ideological verbosity and idealism, was a rare person who at times could put aside differences and look for common solutions.”
“Ted was sincerely intent on finding enough common ground among us to make progress on the issues of our day, and toward that end he would work as hard and as modestly as any staffer,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. “When he made a promise to you, he kept it, no matter what. . . . I will miss him very much.”
Doyle McManus, The Times’ former Washington bureau chief, is an op-ed columnist for the paper.
“Sen. Kennedy was . . . an unwavering advocate for the millions of less fortunate in our country. The courage and dignity he exhibited in his fight with cancer was surpassed only by his lifelong commitment and service to his country.”
Former President Carter