After all these years, conservatives have a lot to learn from Ted Kennedy.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Aug. 27 2009 8:59 PM

Art of a Lion

After all these years, conservatives have a lot to learn from Ted Kennedy.

Edward Kennedy. Click image to expand.
Ted Kennedy

For once, Democrats and Republicans in Washington can agree on something: The U.S. Senate won't be the same without Ted Kennedy. Like the first great senator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster, the Last Lion combined the two best traditions of the upper house as a brilliant orator who believed the Senate's job was to get things done.

As the many bipartisan tributes attest, Kennedy was impossible not to like, even for those on the right who spent their careers railing against his politics. Unlike most legends, he brought a joyous enthusiasm to the daily grind, inspiring lifelong loyalty from his staff and improbable friendships across the ideological spectrum. Anyone who ever saw his annual holiday skits or overheard his colleagues roaring in the cloakroom knows that Ted Kennedy won people's hearts not because he had the biggest name in American politics but because he had the biggest laugh.

Advertisement

The Senate is far more partisan and polarized than when Kennedy arrived in 1962, and only a few members remain from before 1980, when its bipartisan fabric began to fray. Now that he's gone, it's easy to look back in sorrow at his legislative success as the lost relic of a bygone era.

Yet in many respects, the arc of Kennedy's career suggests a different lesson. Over the course of his tenure, the Senate got worse, but he kept getting better. He was a fervent partisan and, among the Republican rank-and-file, a polarizing figure. But while he knew how to score political points—and clearly enjoyed it—Ted Kennedy kept score the old-fashioned way, by how much he actually accomplished.

In a city too often known more for talk than for action, Kennedy always had an agenda. While he never became president or majority leader, he challenged his staff to come up with new ideas every year, which he would call for in his own mini-State of the Union. Whenever he visited Bill Clinton at the White House, he brought a to-do list for the administration. On one occasion he was so eager, he couldn't even wait for his meeting with the president; he just handed me the list and urged us to get to work on our action items.

In recent years, the political world has come to dismiss principled compromise as an oxymoron. Kennedy's life list of legislative achievements shows that it is possible to stand one's ground and still seize every chance to make steady progress.

Senate Republicans who've grown fond of Kennedy say how much they miss his voice in the health reform debate. Sen. Lamar Alexander called him "at once the most partisan and the most constructive" senator who "could preach the party line as well as bridge differences better than any Democrat."

It's a tribute to Kennedy's perseverance and personality that getting to know him changed so many Republicans' tune over the years. But perhaps the greater irony is how much the conservative movement could learn from Ted Kennedy's example. Kennedy was a liberal lion who got things done. It's time the right learned to lionize conservatives who come to Washington to get things done. Alas, that species has become all too rare in recent years.

Kennedy never had a problem summoning his followers to the ramparts one day and negotiating on their behalf the next. His achievements—on health care, education reform, national service, and so many other issues—were as pragmatic as his speeches were profound. The Democratic base loved him for both.

By contrast, many Republicans who most enjoyed working with Kennedy were often vilified for doing so. Orrin Hatch, whose conservative credentials are unassailable, often found himself on the defensive for working across party lines with his good friend. When John McCain returned to the Senate after losing the Republican nomination in 2000, he tried to fashion a legislative career after Kennedy's—but every time he reached across the aisle, the right attacked him as a renegade maverick.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.