On Ted

By , 27 August, 2009, 3 Comments

Ted Kennedy was hardly my favorite politician. I have always looked askance at the politics of personality epitomized by the Kennedy clan and now, also, by the Obamas. I usually roll my eyes with indifference over sex scandals. I am unswayed by electoral pitches based on personal morality or emotional connection. Most of the Kennedy obits have emphasized–as his positive qualities–his oratory and his personal loyalty; and–as his failings–alcoholism and violence. Some write-ups have been eloquent, some banal, but to me, they felt irrelevant.

What I did respect about Ted Kennedy was his effectiveness. He was a legislative machine who pushed far-liberal bills through an increasingly polarized Senate. He didn’t do this by the rhetorical flourish of ‘post-partisanship’ or by watering down actual policies to achieve middle-of-the-road results. He did it by old-fashioned negotiation.

He took single liberal proposals and found single senators who might be persuaded by those proposals on their policy merits. Then he brought them into long sessions and working-groups devoted to hammering out details with relevant stakeholders. Those sessions, well below the subcommittee level, devoted specifically to an individual piece of policy, were so specific that the liberalism or conservatism of the legislators in the room would become irrelevant.

A liberal bill would evolve in those sessions, and might wind up with a few conservative co-sponsors, but it didn’t evolve ‘towards the right’ to get them, because these sessions were at such a deep level of wonkishness that broad terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ did not apply. A Republican senator might be involved deeply in Kennedy-led negotiations for an education bill, and never even be invited to Kennedy-led negotiations for a labor bill. Working with Kennedy on education, in other words, wouldn’t have the impact of giving that senator a centrist label, though it might have the impact of earning him a favor from Kennedy later on. In other words, Kennedy’s procedure was deep on policy and on backroom politics, but on the frontroom horse race radar that the rest of us monitor, it was politically neutral. Ted Kennedy was not the only person who worked this way, but his kind are a dying breed.

In part, that’s because backroom, closed-door, wonkishly detailed sessions don’t fit the era of CSPAN and DailyKos. But there’s another reason: Instead of looking for people on the political borderline who might be persuaded, or for those who might get a bill big press, to pull a Kennedy, you go looking for people who know that issue cold. Kennedy-bills are the work of institutionalized experts. Orchestrating them requires a belief in the institution of the Senate, in the value of expertise, and in the institutions of government that Senate policy can set up.

If health care reform, and other liberal goals, are in danger without Kennedy, it is not because we need his booming voice or personal flourish–though those will be missed–it is because we need to work the system and, as I continue to lament, so few believe in the system anymore.

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3 Responses {+}
  • rafigagum

    in other words a perfect PGA member although he never got recruited, not sure if the others didn't ask him into the club

  • The Fast Talker

    Nice work Maha. Do you think Kennedy's death changes the terms of the current debate at all?

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    I do. Because of the personality politics everyone else seems to operate by,the left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party can use his death as a rallying cry to push for whatever is the most liberal of the House bills. I think Kennedy's death marginally improves the hand of that crowd.

    At the same time, I think it weakens the hand of the moderates–Kennedy actually brokered the talks in February and March with insurers that became the moderate Senate bill. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/us/politics/20health.html?_r=1&scp;=29&sq;=kennedy&st;=nyt) His name was never personally associated with that legislation, and it was the product of the thankless workhorse process I've outlined in this post where there is no public credit for your involvement. I'm not sure there's anyone else from that group who can push that kind of process forwards; and I know that group can't make a public personality appeal for their proposal.

    However, because I think the left-liberal wing of the Democratic party is still a minority of the Senate overall, I think they won't have the votes and we'll end up with some mush in the middle of both bills that fails to achieve either group's goals.

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