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.

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.

The question now isn't who in the Senate can fill Kennedy's shoes but who will choose to follow in his footsteps. In the spirit of getting things done, Democrats would like to honor Sen. Kennedy's memory by passing health reform. It will be a shame if Republicans are in no rush to lend a hand. Ted Kennedy was as steadfast a champion of his beliefs as the Senate has ever seen, but he always understood what too many in Washington forget: Every cause is better served when principle takes a seat at the table, and no cause moves forward when its champions walk away.

In the end, it's not the roar that makes a lion. The sign of a courageous life is having so much to show for it.

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.