Liberals Uncertain About How -- or Whether -- to Follow Kennedy's Path

The Washington Post
By Alec MacGillis and Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 29, 2009

Edward M. Kennedy's colleagues say the question that has been building since his death Tuesday is not so much who will replace him -- no one can. It is what lesson his brand of liberalism holds for today's anxious Democrats.

Kennedy became a hero to liberals for the certainty and vigor he exuded in pressing their agenda, even when Republicans were in ascendance and "New Democrats" argued for moderation.

Today, although they control Congress and the White House, Democrats are suffering from a crisis of confidence. Having spent years running from the "liberal" label, many fret over how far to push Kennedy's signal issue, health-care reform that would bring medical insurance to every American -- now the centerpiece of President Obama's domestic agenda.

Kennedy's death this week has left Democrats debating just what made him so successful -- his public embrace of liberalism or his political skill and the relationships he built with opposition lawmakers -- and about whether his approach might be translated to help Democrats regain their footing.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wants Democrats to renew their commitment to unabashed liberalism. "Voters want the real thing," he said.

Other Democrats say what made Kennedy successful was knowing when to compromise, when to agree to terms that fell short of expectations but left room for later gains. "He had this unerring sense of what was the critical bottom line for the people most in need -- what the key goal was you were making progress on and why you were at the table to begin with," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

As much as anyone, Kennedy defined what an American liberal was. A liberal believed in social justice for the poor, immigrants and other marginalized groups, and believed government had a role in protecting them and ensuring their opportunities. It was an ideology forged in the New Deal and civil rights era, and was exemplified by Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The success of Kennedy's liberal approach waxed and waned during his 46 years in the Senate. He helped create the Family and Medical Leave Act and a vast health insurance program for children. But his efforts fell short on immigration reform and universal health care.

Some historians say Kennedy's success might not translate for Democrats today, that his appeal was created at a time and place that made it possible. Americans, they say, generally embrace big government only in dire circumstances -- the Depression, World War II -- or when the collective sense of American exceptionalism is threatened.

In this context, Kennedy's passing may represent the final turn of a cycle of postwar liberalism that rose when he was a young man, when the Soviet satellite Sputnik orbited the earth alone, when one of his brothers declared a New Frontier and the other asserted a moral duty toward the poor.

That Obama is having trouble making the case for a more active government -- even following an unpopular Republican presidency -- shows the limited appeal his liberalism holds today, they say.

"We have such a fundamental suspicion of government," historian Robert Dallek said. "You hear it now: 'I don't want the government involved in Medicare,' even though of course it is."

For liberals, Kennedy became over time the bulwark of a political faith under siege. At a time when conservatives caricatured liberalism as effete or weak, Michael S. Dukakis riding a tank or John F. Kerry windsurfing, Kennedy presented it as a muscular tradition, expressed in a booming baritone and homegrown as touch football.

"There are those that have tried to paint American liberals as trying to copy other countries' systems or moving toward socialism or denying personal responsibility," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) "Ted defined liberalism as what made America a great nation -- that it took care of those in need and helped provide opportunity for all."

It was, to be sure, easier for Kennedy to sound the clarion call than for other Democrats. He came from one of the most Democratic states, and his personal wealth insulated him from concerns about upsetting campaign donors.

Also, notes Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe, Kennedy came out of an Irish Catholic culture that valued social uplift. In a country defined by individualism, Boston's tribalism and memories of immigrant privation allowed politicians to speak for group solidarity, the needy and the urban working class in a way that resonated more than it might have elsewhere.

Further setting Kennedy's liberalism apart was the aura of his famous brothers. "When you've got such a storied family history, it can't help but give you a very high altitude that protects you from the prevailing weather, so you can follow your own conscience," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)

But from early on in his Senate career, Kennedy was able to meld his ideals with the yard-by-yard tactics of a skilled Senate insider. Whereas his brother Bobby was bored by Senate procedure in his brief stint there, Kennedy thrived on it.

Far from making his convictions seem negotiable, he built a principled image through all the deal-making. In the Senate, those with firm beliefs can win the respect of even their opponents. Kennedy built strong friendships with conservative Republicans such as Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), and he drew on those relationships to pass health-care and education bills.

"In the smaller confines of the Senate, people can detect a phony, so the fact they were really were his convictions gave him a zone of grace," Whitehouse said.

Some on the left say Kennedy's brand of liberalism has been replaced by a new "progressivism" that combines a focus on the needy with what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the Senate's most left-wing members, calls "taking on the very powerful forces that cause the problem" of growing inequality, through systemic reforms.

For now, the task of articulating Kennedy's lessons falls to Obama. Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker said Obama and Kennedy share a mix of philosophical liberalism and operational moderation -- what Kennedy described in his 2008 endorsement of Obama as "[caring] passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view."

David Gergen, who advised presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, said Obama's eulogy Saturday will probably focus on Kennedy's ability to balance the perfect and the possible in a way that could look ahead to the Democrats' looming challenges.

Obama "could set this up in such a way that he remembers the Kennedy legacy of championing ideals and being very practical in working solutions," he said.

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