Reading Neal Gabler's superb biography of Ted Kennedy, what strikes me is less the book's theme on the decline of liberalism, which is exaggerated, than the decline of the Senate, its prestige, its standing.
Kennedy, who was unqualified when elected at the age of 30 — "If your name were Edward Moore your candidacy would be a joke," an opponent charged — nevertheless became one of the country's greatest Senators, the most significant in modern times. Health care, immigration, civil rights, campaign finance reform, airline deregulation, ending the Vietnam War — all Kennedy signatures.
More than his brothers, he understood the legislative dance; the liberal lion would cut the best deal possible for his cause. To achieve this, he'd work with anyone: Republicans John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances 20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home MORE, Olympia Snowe, Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchCongress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears The national action imperative to achieve 30 by 30 MORE — all likely to be featured in Gabler's second volume; in the 60s and 70s with the Southern bulls like Jim Eastland and Richard Russell.
Kennedy appreciated the centrality of personal relationships in the Senate. He earned the regard of colleagues from those old-line Southerners to Republicans and moderate Democrats later. In 2007, I asked freshman Democratic Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Senate backers of new voting rights bill push for swift passage The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Polls open in California as Newsom fights for job MORE of Montana what surprised him most about the Senate: "I really like Ted Kennedy.”
I seriously doubt that even Kennedy, who died more than 11 years ago, could navigate effectively in the current Senate.
His deals — which made incremental and continuous progress — would be denounced as "sell-outs" by left wing groups.
Gabler captures how that occurred in the early 1970s when Kennedy and his arch enemy Richard Nixon were close to cutting a deal on what would have been the most progressive liberal national health insurance plan until the Affordable Care Act. The plan was killed by liberals. Kennedy often said, including to me, that perhaps was his greatest legislative regret. It was unusual then; it's commonplace today.
It misses the point to blame all the institution's ineffectiveness on the filibuster.
It’s true the filibuster has been inexcusably abused — but it was there for all of Kennedy's almost 47 years in the Senate. Altering it, while desirable, is no panacea.
A much greater problem is the Republican leadership. After Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhite House debates vaccines for air travel Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward MORE was elected President, GOP leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump seeking challenger to McConnell as Senate GOP leader: report Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' Buckle up for more Trump, courtesy of the Democratic Party MORE said categorically that his goal was to make sure the president was not re-elected.
The best Republican leaders — like Howard Baker and Bob Dole — could be fierce partisans, as could their Democratic counterparts, but they also could rise above that for the good of the country. Democratic President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterAmerica needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Afghanistan and the lessons that history does not offer What's at stake — and in play — for the midterms MORE's unpopular Panama Canal treaty won Senate approval only because Baker supported it. It's impossible to envision McConnell doing anything like that today.
The problem isn’t just the leadership: It's also the followership.
The destructive right was there before; remember North Carolina's Jesse Helms? Now there are more of them, like Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke prepping run for governor in Texas: report Support for Abbott plunging in Texas: poll White House debates vaccines for air travel MORE (R-Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulWhite House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment MORE (R-Ky.) and Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE (R-Mo.). Their mission is not to conserve, but to tear down.
With such a polarized electorate, these Senators often pay no price for irresponsible obstructionism.
Josh Hawley was an enabler of the Jan. 6 mob assault on the Capitol with his baseless claims of a stolen election; he's now raising more money than ever, and some still discuss him as a future presidential nominee. Senate Republicans for nine months refused to give Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandGrassley calls for federal prosecutor to probe botched FBI Nassar investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Woman allegedly abused by Nassar after he was reported to FBI: 'I should not be here' MORE so much as a hearing — and then confirmed Trump's choice of Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettNew Hampshire state representative leaves GOP over opposition to vaccine mandate Barrett: Supreme Court 'not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks' To infinity and beyond: What will it take to create a diverse and representative judiciary? MORE in a matter of weeks. And then these Republican lawmakers expected to be taken seriously when they claimed it was all consistent.
Then there are those who sporadically seem thoughtful and eager to make the place work. Nebraska’s Republican Sen. Ben SasseBen SassePresident of newly recognized union for adult performers boosts membership Romney blasts Biden over those left in Afghanistan: 'Bring them home' Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal MORE suggested a package of reforms: a single, 12-year term; eliminate C-Span telecasts of the floor; have Senators from both parties live together in dormitories. Then this month Sasse voted against Merrick Garland, one of the most qualified persons ever nominated to be Attorney General.
There are Senators today trying to make the place function, working across the aisle. The latest is a group of 20; it will fail as most others have.
Save for a few Republicans like Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyFive questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds MORE of Utah, the leaders and the rank and file would crucify them if they tried to work with a Kennedy-like Democrat. This is in contrast to 1980 when — after the Republicans won the White House and control of the Senate that November — Kennedy persuaded chairman-to-be of the Judiciary Committee, Strom Thurmond, to allow confirmation of a Court of Appeals judge during the lame duck session. That was Stephen Breyer.
If the legendary Massachusetts lawmaker had been actively involved, Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act would have gotten through more smoothly and expeditiously.
Kennedy’s old friend, Joe BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE, could use him today.
But even Ted Kennedy couldn't do much, I fear, in this Senate.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.