Master of Opportunity

There are two battling story lines about the career of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy: Here at the Prospect, we recall the Lion of Liberalism, treating his 1980 convention speech as the hinge of his long career. Meanwhile, on cable news, or in the hands of Dan Balz at The Washington Post, he is the icon of bipartisan compromise, whose close working partnership with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah among others was legendary. Earlier this week, a number of Republicans including Hatch invoked a disingenuous, "if only Teddy were here" explanation for their intransigence on health reform, suggesting that all other Democrats lacked his ability to forge compromises.

My own exposure to Sen. Kennedy during the period I worked on the Hill was mostly at a distance, but I don't see those two approaches as being in any kind of conflict. I think that he was able to forge bipartisan deals because he knew his own heart so well. The deals -- such as the McCain-Kennedy partnership on immigration -- were not built around the idea of bipartisanship but on his vision of a just society, implemented through an imperfect and messy set of democratic institutions, involving a lot of people who don't agree with you.

It was a view of politics that wasn't built around any fixed conception of partisanship or how to get things done. The debate about whether to pass health care through reconciliation or through bipartisan compromise would probably seem misdirected to him. His approach to politics was evident: If you know where the country should go, every single day, every interaction with a colleague, might create a chance to get a little closer to it, and if you put your energy into every such opportunity, some of them will pay off.

As an example, early on in the period when I was working for Sen. Bill Bradley, Bradley decided to get involved in reform of the student-loan system. He wasn't on the appropriate committee (Kennedy's Education and Labor Committee, now known as HELP), and he had never been involved before. But as a member of the Finance Committee, he saw a way to sneak student-loan funding into a tax bill, and pay for it. While other Democrats on Education and Labor brushed us off as if we were encroaching on their domain (we were, shamelessly!), Kennedy saw it as just another opportunity to get some good accomplished.

Before we knew it, Kennedy had pulled everyone involved into his maritime-themed hideaway office (perhaps the most awe-inspiring physical space in the entire Capitol) to figure out how to get it done, and he threw himself into it -- at one point calling me from the Senate floor to dictate the precise flattering language of a letter we would need to send to Sen. Robert C. Byrd to persuade him to give his permission to the unorthodox move. In the end it didn't happen (the first President Bush vetoed the bill), and it's not even a footnote to his legacy. It was one of hundreds, thousands of tiny moments of opportunity to make some progress, and if 99 out of 100 of those opportunities failed, he knew that the one that didn't would at least make a difference in someone's life.

During the Bush years, that approach could sometimes be turned against him. If he had known that the administration didn't intend to fund the No Child Left Behind legislation, he might not have lent his support in 2001, and his support for the Medicare prescription-drug legislation got it through the Senate, only to see his compromise completely wiped out in conference. It took him a while, as it did most liberals, to appreciate that there were no real opportunities in the Bush years, that steadfast opposition was the only honorable position. When Obama emerged as a colleague and presidential candidate, it was evident to Kennedy, though not as clear to others, that his approach to compromise and bipartisanship was similar to Kennedy's own, that it was based in the idea that if you have a clear vision of where you want to go, you can -- and should -- try to find common ground and opportunities for change with anyone you can.

As I watch health reform foundering once again, threatened by Democrats as much as by Republicans, it reminds me again that that spirit is shockingly hard to find in the U.S. Congress. I'd often look at senators, and especially long-serving staffers, and want to shake them by the lapels and demand to know, "Why are you here? Is the purpose of your life to get re-elected as easily as possible, or to help your boss get re-elected?" Health care has been left in the hands of people who could not answer that question.

The reason that Ted Kennedy might have been able to bring people together on health care and other reforms is precisely because of, not despite, the fact that he was a passionate liberal who knew exactly why he was where he was.

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