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Ted Kennedy’s finest moment

Lion of the Senate shows that it is policy entrepreneurs – legislators who can operate with limited power, a clear vision, and tremendous creativity and passion – who really get things done.

Ted Kennedy.
Ted Kennedy.
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

In a Senate chamber that was quiet and almost empty, on a spring afternoon in 1996, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy rose from his back-row desk and ambled to the red corner bench where a dozen Senate staffers waited for whatever business brought us there. "Who knows how to break this thing?" he asked. Kennedy wanted to force the Senate to vote on increasing the minimum wage. To prevent the vote from occurring at all, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole had used a technique known as "filling the amendment tree." To oversimplify, only four amendments to a bill could be pending at one time, so by quickly offering four amendments (with tiny changes), while also blocking votes on them, Dole could foreclose any possibility that Kennedy could even propose his minimum wage amendment.

Sitting on that bench (and with no answer to the question of how to break Dole's tactic, while two staffers who might know jumped up to help), I recall being struck by three things: First, that this iconic figure, who had been in the Senate longer than I'd been alive, still needed advice on the institution's rules, which are really a giant messy box of tools, some of which are never used. Second, that he was open to insight from anyone on that bench, whether or not he knew them or they worked for him — a rare level of trust. And finally, and most importantly, that once he broke Dole's tactic, he would win. The tide of political reaction that crashed down on us in the Gingrich election of 1994 could be turned back, in part by putting forward an ambitious progressive agenda (or a "working families" agenda, as it was called at the time) that forced real choices.

Longtime Kennedy staffers Nick Littlefield and David Nexon, in their new book about Kennedy's leadership after 1994, tell the story a little differently. In their version, Kennedy is the one who knows rules that staff had never heard of, and who checks with parliamentary experts to assure the staff that he's got it right. Either way, the story they tell, in which Kennedy's smart tactics and unwavering commitment to achieving some progress was far more important than President Clinton's "triangulation" tactics of the same era, feels exactly right, and like an underappreciated episode in recent history.

Through most of his first 34 years in the Senate, Kennedy had held considerable formal power. He had been Senate majority whip, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and chair of the Education and Labor Committee. For much of his career, he also held the vague but real clout that accompanies the perception that one might be president, and, unique to Kennedy, the confidence that sons, nephews, and nieces would soon file into Congress.

Neither Littlefield and Nexon's title, Lion of the Senate, nor the book fully acknowledges that by 1995, Kennedy had none of that formal power. His most exalted title was ranking minority member on the Education and Labor committee; his staff was pared back to a fraction of the empire he was accustomed to. The 1994 campaign, his seventh, had been the first in which his reelection was not assured — after several years in which his personal weaknesses and alcoholism had seemed to catch up with him, he needed to call in help to defeat a young financier named Mitt Romney.

A month before that election, it had seemed more likely that Kennedy would lose than that Democrats would lose control of Congress. Come November, Kennedy not only survived but trounced Romney, while many of his colleagues, particularly moderate and conservative Democrats, had been sent home, and Republicans claimed both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. But for Kennedy, a happy second marriage and a new lease on political life restored a confidence and focus that had seemed to lapse.

Books about how politicians attain or exercise power abound, but more interesting are those moments when a political actor figures out how to influence the process in the absence of official power. It usually requires working both inside and outside the institution, improvising to build coalitions, and knowing the rules, customs, and political alignments better than anyone else. Real expertise on an issue, which often seems irrelevant in these deeply partisan times, can pay off in these situations: In 2005, for example, George W. Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security ran aground in large part because its opponents simply understood the issue, and the complex choices between risk and security, far better than the advocates for whom privatization seemed like such a no-brainer that they didn't actually think about it.

In interwoven stories of three significant Kennedy initiatives — the minimum wage increase, an incremental health insurance reform, and the effort to fight Gingrich's first budget — Littlefield and Nexon map out Kennedy's basic method, which, like his question to the whole staff bench, involved gathering up opinions and ideas, starting with carefully staged "policy dinners" with a dozen or two experts. The next steps were to define a clear and ambitious agenda, put it out, and be very clear about incremental steps that would be acceptable. Finally, find Republican allies — either at the beginning of the process, negotiating nonstop, or at the end, forcing a few to make an uncomfortable choice between their voters and their party's ideological discipline. In each case, the strategy led to some kind of success, but always some distance from the ideal.

While the mid-1990s are not likely to form a long chapter in any full biography of Kennedy, the period between the rapid fading of Newt Gingrich's overreaching ambitions and the dawn of the Lewinsky scandal and Clinton impeachment also gets little attention from historians. Mostly it's known for Clinton's efforts at "triangulation" between his own party and the right, and the eventual budget deal with Gingrich. But it was a period of significant progress, such as the Children's Health Insurance Program, and a rare period when public confidence in Congress actually increased. Littlefield and Nexon make a strong case that Kennedy's role in this period, in laying out a strong vision that unified progressives both in and outside of Congress, was at least as significant as Clinton's cautious self-preservation. Indeed, more recent internal fights — such as between Howard Dean, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders against a more hesitant Democratic or Clinton establishment — have their roots in the choices about how to respond to Gingrich.

Unfortunately this is not, as Doris Kearns Goodwin declares in her introduction, a guide to how the Senate works. It is a guide to how it worked, much of it as obsolete as the idea that a $4.25 minimum wage is a triumph, or the authors' painstaking description of the positions of telephones on the Senate floor. The Republicans with whom Kennedy collaborated, such as John Chafee of Rhode Island and Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, are long gone. Of Sen. Trent Lott, who became majority leader after Dole stepped down to campaign for president, they say that although he was much more conservative, it was easy to work with Lott because "he was playing the same game we were." (They describe him whistling back to his office after a tough negotiating session with Kennedy.) The current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, plays a much more aggressive and unyielding game, in part because his members are much less inclined to compromise.

Some journalists and political scientists see in the current Congress, in both houses, an absence of strong leadership that would bring members in line and force them to accept compromise. Others imagine that more social interaction among legislators would magically lead to compromise. In fact, as this book shows, it is policy entrepreneurs — legislators who can operate with limited power, a clear vision, and tremendous creativity and passion — who really get things done.

There are plenty of senators today with Kennedy's raw skills, though of course not his iconic name and history. We need a politics that gives those entrepreneurs more room to maneuver, on their own terms. Lion of the Senate is a guide to what that kind of politics could look like, and we need to remember that the era it describes was not so long ago.