The Next Teddy Kennedy? The Short Answer is…


(Odd how this post comes about within weeks of writing this about RFK.)

Many names have been mentioned in respect to who will take the place of Ted Kennedy in the Senate–the unique mix of being a liberal hardliner and a bipartisan deal-maker. But there is just nothing of the sort right now in the United States Senate. We’re not talking about a Senate full of lions (which will be the topic of the post after next), but a partisan, polarized group of people. As Tom Schaller mentions in the linked article, it’s just a different Senate from today’s.

Dick Durbin? Tom Harkin? Russ Feingold? Chris Dodd? None of the guys have the gravitas figures like Ted Kennedy did. Durbin, who is like Kennedy in that he managed to become Majority Whip as a liberal in the Senate, isn’t out in front and visible and the issues enough, though that may change if he happens to become Majority Leader. (Damn you, FiveThirtyEight!) The latter point holds for Harkin as well, even though he is a reliably liberal vote in the Senate. Feingold takes liberal positions on social and foreign policy issues but is a deficit hawk in the mold of Kent Conrad, and he is pretty overrated due to McCain-Feingold, which, although certainly a significant piece of legislation, is his only major bipartisan accomplishment.

My darkhorse pick? Al Franken. Many candidates raised their money badmouthing Franken when he was a well-known talkie in Minnesota, just as they did with Kennedy. Moreover, Franken, a diehard liberal, has been said to want to be like his idol Paul Wellstone, the chief spokesman for the liberal wing of the Democratic who also occasionally crossed the aisle (like the Bosnia intervention and DoMA). But it’s too much to determine anything from the freshman senator from Minnesota. More likely is the fact that we won’t see anything like Ted Kennedy for a very long time.

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Ted Kennedy’s Legacy

There’s no point in going through an obituary of Teddy Kennedy. You can go to any website and it would have one for you. And, though the title may be a little ambiguous, this has nothing to do with current political battles, as I just find that supremely inappropriate at this time. Instead, I’ll discuss his legacy.

Kennedy was the last bastion of the antepenultimate generation. Though he is often remembered as the “liberal lion” and related terms, he thought of the issues in moral terms and moving this country forward while also forming strong relationships among his Senate colleagues on all issues, most recently with John McCain on immigration reform. He was also among the last leaders who practiced what is now old politics–the politics of true consensus building with those across the aisle who also had good intentions for this country.

As it often is with such things, he never got to see his dream of universal health care for every American, which would remind one of his 1972 vote against Nixon’s health care reform. But, as he said at the 1980 Democratic national convention, “for me, of two hours ago, this campaign came to an end, but for all those whose cares have been our concern, our work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Edward Moore Kennedy, 1932-2009.

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Reverting to Primary Form

It was said that the primaries helped make Barack Obama a better candidate, and it was true. After the fight with Hillary Clinton, he stayed on message, he learned what it meant to have to fight for his political life, how to debate in a way that blended his preferred intellectual style and the usual beatings, and how to organize better. All of which he, did, of course, to win the election.

Now, where did it all go?

“No-drama Obama” has been incapable of staying on message, especially with health care reform. The White House, frankly, sucks at negotiating for what it wants, and it takes an overly cowardly position–just see what came of the stimulus bill and what can come out of health care. I can’t fathom that Republicans would have tolerated this out of George W. Bush, and progressives don’t with Obama.

Just something to think about.

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A New Way for Progressives to Debate

This post was brought about by the (false alarm?) death of the public option.

A liberal hasn’t won the presidency since 1965 (if you consider Lyndon Johnson a liberal). Since then, the minefield of qualified liberal candidates who have been demolished in national elections has grown: George McGovern, Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Edwards (though that turned out OK), etc. Why? They’ve had to play defense against outrageous conservative attacks. Having facts on our side isn’t enough.

Liberals generally have it right. The public option is almost surely the best way to lower costs and expand coverage to all Americans. Cap and trade, if not an outright carbon tax, is almost surely the best way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while creating revenue for the federal government. Amnesty is the best way to solve the current problem with undocumented persons in the United States. Need  I go on?

But this, and the mounds of analysis/sheer common sense that supports it gets lost between conservative hysteria. Conservatives strike fear in the hearts of others when “big government” wants to interfere in your business, health care, rights (as well as “states’ rights”), etc. And “Middle America” often falls for it, scared even if they know the truth. The lies thrown around by conservatives are treated by liberals as if they have some sort of credibility. Most recently, for example, when were “death panels” ever in the house bill? As a result, liberals have always had to play defense, and that’s the status quo since the Reagan Revolution.

It’s time to play offense. Imagine the electoral improvements in the senior citizen demographic if liberals start saying, “Conservatives/Republicans want to take away your Social Security” or “Conservatives/Republicans want to take away your Medicare,” both true statements. Imagine the electoral improvements if liberals emphasize the needless loss of young lives in wars as opposed to what amounts to intellectual gibberish regarding the short-sightedness from a foreign policy analysis standpoint. How could conservatives justify an unprovoked war in, say, North Korea when this counterpoint is raised? And we can take this a very a long way.

Intellectualism never won anybody any elections. It’s why William Buckley and his crew at the National Review had a limited following during the Liberal Consensus. They certainly influenced some outcomes, but the scope of their achievements is limited, and their movement remained relatively small, as small as, I hate to say, we in the Netroots are today. It’s also why Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan somehow won two terms each.

The Democratic Party’s “big tent” isn’t enough. Having the facts on our side isn’t enough. Winning elections in this country and effecting the right kind of change, even at the cost of increased polarization, is.

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So Who is the RFK in Modern-Day Politics?

(This post was inspired by reading The Last Campaign: RFK and 82 Days that Inspired America by Thurston Clarke.)

Robert Francis Kennedy. Most people alive never knew him, and, as a country, we remember him best for being JFK’s brother and one of the most powerful Attorneys General in history. But arguably his most important contribution to American society was his presidential campaign.

Kennedy changed much from his days as a tough and almost ruthless Attorney General. His brother’s assassination trips around the world–to Latin America, Africa, and, most influential to him, the Mississippi Delta–changed him deeply, humbling him, and made him see the world through a different light. He was then inspired to fight against and reveal the riveting details of the life of the poor, who are often hidden from view in society. To him, the issues were not ideological or political, but moral. His campaign was based on one of hope for America’s youth, under-served, and underpriviliged; and clean politics. In many ways, his was the first modern campaign.

So, who is the RFK in modern-day politics?

The short answer: No one.

But it’s not so simple. Times have changed since then. Because of his involvement in the Vietnam engagement and Castro assassination attempts under President Kennedy, today’s investigative media would never have allowed him to become president, which he seemed bound to do on midnight of June 5, 1968. Moreover, American politics have changed much since then. His rhetoric would be considered soft and easily deniable by the conservative fringe now dominant in some elements of the media. Moreover, the moral imperative from which Kennedy sought to achieve his legislative goals is no longer good enough for today’s center-right nation.

So, who comes the closest? President Obama is the obvious answer, though his bizarre and almost quixotic attempts at “bipartisanship” have finally started to be proven fruitless. His attitude of trying to get just anything done without advertising the moral imperative are quite concerning. But he still has a genuine empathy for the little man largely absent from many politicians today, which is very much good enough for now, anyway.


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It’s Been a While

It’s been a while, seeing as I’ve been extraordinarily busy these last few weeks. But now I’m back, and the long-promised who-is-the-modern-day-RFK post is coming up within minutes.

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Quick Round-up: Sotomayor, Health Care

Yes, I promised these posts last week, but I’m keeping to my updated promise of having a post by tonight. So a quick round-up of the Sotomayor hearings and the health care fight:

  • The Sotomayor hearings were without fireworks, as they should have been. Regardless of the Manny Mirandas of the world, there is a basic level of respect that is earned and ought to be observed between an elected official and a Supreme Court nominee.¬† Several Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), have announced their support for Sotomayor. Now, when it comes to Sotomayor, she said all of the right things, but her record and comments on capital punishment and abortion worry me a bit, but that’s for another day.
  • The Wonk Room (at ThinkProgress) has a great table comparing the Senate Finance Committee bill, the HELP Committee bill, and the Tri-Committee (House) bill, and, looking at the three, the HELP could be the best depending on how it’s going to be financed. I like the House bill as an OK starting point from which some can be given and taken, but there’s one big thing that has gone largely unreported: the public option doesn’t vest until 2013. A bill without a public option isn’t real reform, and that’s a serious reservation I have with the bill. It’s more or less a trigger, and if that’s what Senate Democrats really wanted, they could have attained such a bill weeks ago. The House bill does bring up the idea of the surtax, which is slowly but surely gaining steam on Capitol Hill. I hope Sen. Dodd starts making a detailed draft of the HELP bill that includes financing, seeing as that bill could be the best. I’ve lost all faith in Max Baucus at this point.

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