Ted Kennedy: A Liberal's Bipartisan

When Ted Kennedy walked to the Denver podium, flanked by his wife Vicki and his niece Caroline, he had to silence the roars of applause.

Kennedy, 76, and gravely ill with brain cancer, almost didn't make this trip. When he arrived in Denver Sunday, he went straight to a hospital for a medical check. And until the moment that he set out for the convention hall, neither he nor his family could be certain whether he'd feel strong enough to speak. The magnificent short film tribute was initially conceived as a stand-in for Kennedy himself. The tears mixed with the cheers marked the fact that, barring divine intervention, this will be Kennedy's last convention.

From rather shaky beginnings as the man who inherited his older brother's seat in 1962 (a family retainer had to warm the seat for two years until young Teddy turned 30), and one rough period after Chappaquiddick and another following his failed challenge to a sitting president in 1980, Ted Kennedy grew into one of the greatest legislators in the history of the Senate. He liked to tell a story from his first campaign: Kennedy was working the gates of a factory, shaking hands as dawn was breaking and the graveyard shift was going home. A burly worker looked him in the eye and said, "You're a rich kid, you never worked a day in your life." A startled Kennedy tried to stammer an answer, but the worker cut him off. "You know," he said, "You ain't missed a thing."

Despite his doubly privileged roots -- growing up in affluence, inheriting a Senate seat -- Kennedy devoted his long career to improving the lot of such workers. One day, Edward Moore Kennedy will no longer be in the Senate. And people who never saw him in action will not grasp how it was possible for a senator to be simultaneously a principled liberal, a superb tactician, as well a bipartisan force who could befriend conservative Republicans to work for public purposes. In this respect, Kennedy is a superb role model for Barack Obama, another leader who hopes both to be a true progressive and to bridge differences.

If you look back at Kennedy's record of achievement, you will find a surprising number of successful bills where his name is twinned with those of Republicans, and not just moderate ones. There are numerous Kennedy-Hatch bills, sponsored with his good friend, Utah conservative Orrin Hatch -- most recently, one to help victims of traumatic brain injuries. The Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, an imperfect but life-saving measure that expanded the bill known as COBRA to allow workers who lose their jobs to keep their health insurance at least for a transitional time. The late lamented Kennedy-McCain immigration bill, which offered the hope of comprehensive immigration reform, was carefully worked out with John McCain before the latter performed what Karl Rove might call a flip-flop. Kennedy would work with the devil to produce progressive legislation to better the condition of regular Americans. He even worked with George W. Bush in that spirit -- on the No Child Left Behind Law -- to get more resources into poor schools, before Bush double crossed him and denied the promised funding.

At the same time, Kennedy knows how to be a partisan better than any other Democrat alive. When he was not cajoling Republicans into backing surprisingly progressive regulation, he was brilliantly outplaying them. He relentlessly pursued a hike in the minimum wage, until enough Republicans were shamed into supporting it. Kennedy worked hand in glove with Labor Secretary Bob Reich, over the objections of more conservative members of the Clinton administration, to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act.

And in July, when Democrats mustered some nerve and were moving legislation to reduce overpayments to insurance companies hawking privatized Medicare payments so that the shortfall would not come out of doctors' pockets, Kennedy executed one of his most dazzling and courageous moves. Only weeks from his surgery and still very weak from chemotherapy, Kennedy phoned Senate Leader Harry Reid. He learned from Reid that Democrats were one short of the 60 votes they needed to overcome a filibuster. Despite the qualms of his doctors, who warned that his immune system was still impaired from the chemotherapy, Kennedy went secretly to Washington. Until he strode onto the Senate floor to cast the decisive vote, not even his staff knew what he was up to.

Once the Democrats had the votes, several Republicans broke ranks so as not to be on the wrong side of a popular issue, giving the sponsors a veto-proof margin. Kennedy has dozens of personal friends among Senate Republicans, but when sweet persuasion fails he is the acknowledged master of legislative guile.

So the next time you hear that it is impossible for Barack Obama to be both a bipartisan bridge builder and also a resolute partisan Democrat, just point to the splendid example of Ted Kennedy.

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