Remembering Ted Kennedy highlights decline of the Senate

Remembering Ted Kennedy highlights decline of the Senate
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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 McCainColbert mocks Gaetz after Trump denies he asked for a pardon Five reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Meghan McCain calls on Gaetz to resign MORE, Olympia Snowe, Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchPress: Forget bipartisanship — it's dead! Privatization of foster care has been a disaster for children Remembering Ted Kennedy highlights decline of the Senate 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) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate Lawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan 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 ObamaUS raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks Matt Stoller calls on Biden administration to keep McKinsey away from infrastructure Obamas describe meeting Prince Philip in statement mourning his death MORE was elected President, GOP leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS McConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists 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 CarterBiden: Between a rocket and a hard place? Dealing with Iran: Will Joe Biden be the new Jimmy Carter? G. Gordon Liddy, central figure in Watergate scandal, dies at 90 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 CruzGOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians Cruz on Boehner: 'I wear with pride his drunken, bloviated scorn' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Let's make a deal on infrastructure, taxes MORE (R-Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - World mourns the death of Prince Philip The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE (R-Ky.) and Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyMcConnell in tricky spot with GOP, big biz Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate 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 GarlandBudget tasks DOJ with turnaround of policing, voting rights, hate crimes Progressive group ramps up pressure on Justice Breyer to retire The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings MORE so much as a hearing — and then confirmed Trump's choice of Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettMcConnell, GOP slam Biden's executive order on SCOTUS Progressives give Biden's court reform panel mixed reviews Top GOP super PAC endorses Murkowski amid primary threat 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 SasseTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Maine GOP rejects motion to censure Collins Senators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats 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 RomneyRomney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start 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 BidenBiden taps California workplace safety leader to head up OSHA Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS US mulling cash payments to help curb migration 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.