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A Roar in Senate Silenced As ‘Liberal Lion’ Sleeps

Michele Swers

September 1, 2009 –When the Senate reconvenes on Sept. 9, it will do so without Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) for the first time in more than four decades. Friends and family eulogized the late senator, who died from brain cancer on Aug. 25, as an institution in U.S. politics as well as the patriarch of a storied American political family. Known for his booming oratory, liberal ideology and gift of compromise, Kennedy became known as the 'Lion of the Senate.' Michele Swers, associate professor and American government field chair, says finding one senator to fill Kennedy's role will be difficult. She spoke with the Blue & Gray about the senator's legacy, who will fill the vacant seat and if the health care reform debate will change following his death.

Q. What is Ted Kennedy's legislative legacy?
A. Generally when you consider senators, you associate them with one area, whether it is health care or foreign policy or education. Kennedy had his hand in so many different pots, partly because his definition of civil rights was so expansive. As part of civil rights, Kennedy was involved in immigration as a civil right, expansion of laws about employment discrimination and Title IX. He took up the cause of employment nondiscrimination for homosexuals, and that became a big cause of his.

Kennedy was one of the three longest-serving senators -- only the late Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and current Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) served longer. The length of service meant he saw so much come through Congress. He was elected in the 1960s, so he saw the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was one of the people involved in the 1965 immigration reform that got rid of quotas that favored Europeans and opened up immigration to people from all over.

The liberal lion name comes from the idea that whenever the country is moving forward, Kennedy is engaged in all of these causes and is a leader on these things.

Q. Even though he was known as a compromiser, he also seemed to polarize the political parties. Why is that?
A. People talk about him being the liberal lion and the pragmatic compromiser at the same time. Republicans used him -- negatively -- in ads all of the time. Ted Kennedy, as an icon of liberalism, was one of the favorites for Republicans to scare voters with.

Yet, within the Senate, people were always trying to make deals with him and work with him. Part of that is his longevity and good personality; part of it is his celebrity. All senators want publicity, and if you worked with Kennedy on something, there would automatically be press.

Q. Where did Kennedy's desire to compromise come from?
A. Kennedy came into his own after he gave up his run for the presidency in 1980. When he put down the mantle of wanting to run for president, that's when the country entered a long period of Republican presidents. If Kennedy wanted to get any legislation passed, even with Bill Clinton, who wasn't a liberal Democrat in the Ted Kennedy fashion, he had to learn to take what he could get and be the compromiser.

Q. Kennedy was influential in the 2008 presidential election when he endorsed Barack Obama, and he mentored Obama in the Senate. Did he do that for other young senators as well?
A. He did have a reputation of being helpful to new senators. If you listened to Vice President Biden's eulogy, he talked about how Kennedy helped him. When Biden entered the Senate, he was only 30 and his wife and daughter were killed around that time. Kennedy was one of the people who convinced him not to give up the seat and stay in the Senate. Kennedy helped him learn the legislative ropes.

Q. Do you anticipate politicians invoking Kennedy to push for health care reform?
A. I think Kennedy's name will be used rhetorically, but it won't have an effect on the ultimate outcome. It's a new talking point for Democrats, and maybe they'll use it to rally support and rally Democrats and progressives.

The issues that are driving health care reform are not going to change. Concerns and questions about the public option and whether we want health care cooperatives remain, and I don't think his death will have an impact on them.

Q. Do you think another Kennedy family member will fill the vacant Senate seat?
A. It's hard to say. Most of what I'm reading now suggests Ted Kennedy's widow, Vicki, probably wouldn't run, but she is a possibility. People are talking about Joe Kennedy, the son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, as a possible replacement. He's a former congressman and now works on providing heating oil to low-income people. But that project has run him into some trouble because it involves making deals with Venezuela.

Q. Who outside of the Kennedy family is considering running for the seat?
A. There is a lot of pent up demand in Massachusetts politics because it's been so long since a Senate seat has opened up. But it's a tricky dance because people don't want to appear disrespectful to Kennedy's memory, but they do want to jockey for that position.

Marty Meehan, a former Democratic congressman and now the president of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, has been mentioned. Also, Reps. Steve Lynch and Michael Capuano, both Democratic congressmen. The attorney general, Martha Coakley, has been mentioned, too. She would be the first female senator from Massachusetts.

Democratic Rep. Barney Frank has taken himself out of consideration because he now has a very powerful position in the House, so he doesn't feel like he needs to be in the Senate.

Q. What about former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney?
A. No, Mitt Romney wants to be president. He's focused on making a national reputation for himself, traveling the country and raising money.

Q. Is there anyone to fill Kennedy's role as a bipartisan compromiser in the Senate now that he's gone?
A. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is often seen as a deal broker. He was Kennedy's partner in immigration reform, and worked with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on campaign finance. However, he doesn't seem to be taking on that role in health care reform, so far. But if McCain sees an issue where he wants to get involved, he's a pretty good deal broker. And Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is already taking a more prominent role in health care.

But there's no one who has Kennedy's breadth of abilities or his level of celebrity and cache.

 -- Lauren Burgoon, Blue & Gray Assistant Editor

 

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