This is not a day for harsh words, if there ever is, but the simple fact is that there is no successor to the man President Obama just called "the greatest United States Senator of our time.''
There is no one who can follow Teddy Kennedy, either in the Senate or the Democratic Party. No one in or outside his family, in plain sight or, more likely, hiding under his desk in fear of Rush Limbaugh. As Kennedy's Republican friend and Senate colleague Orrin Hatch told Politics Daily in an interview last month, "Sen. Kennedy was the only Democrat who could really move all the Democrat special interests. There's no other Democrat who has that kind of swat right now, not even Nancy Pelosi, who has plenty of swat over on the House side.''
In a statement Sen. John McCain issued today about the man who did everything in his power to see him defeated by Obama in last year's presidential contest, the Arizona Republican said it was hard to "express . . . the emptiness we will feel in the Senate in his absence. Even when we are all crowded in the chamber for a vote, engaged in dozens of separate conversations, it will seem a quiet and less interesting place, in the knowledge that his booming voice, fueled by his passion for his convictions, will never encourage or assail or impress us again. I will miss him very much."
Partly because his liberal bona fides were beyond question, he could make deals others could not. With the safest possible seat and his presidential aspirations long behind him, he could and did proceed fearlessly. I've written before – here and here – about my longtime political crush on the man who either in spite of his flaws and losses or because of them accomplished more than anyone else in my lifetime for causes that liberals (and other Americans) care about: fighting poverty, health care reform, civil rights, health care reform, women's rights, health care reform, workers' rights, and so on.
Now, anything but voluntarily, he's broken the promise he made a year ago last night, in his last major speech, delivered on the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver: "I pledge I will be there'' to vote for health care legislation.
Without him – and mea culpa, here comes the cruel part – we are left with . . . Max Baucus? And what about immigration reform, and figuring out Afghanistan, and passing legislation on gays in the military? As Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL, told my Politics Daily colleague Bob Franken this morning, "Not having Ted Kennedy in the Senate is like driving without headlights. . . . There isn't anything you can say about the man that would capture totally his impact on social progress. For women's rights and the right to choose, we needed Ted Kennedy in the Senate."
Ironically, the one person who might have grown into his docksiders in the Senate, though never in the hearts of liberals, was taken out of the running for that role by the president Kennedy got elected – when Obama named her secretary of state. Other legislators may eventually match Kennedy's skill – Sheldon Whitehouse, we are looking at you – but the magic will be even more difficult to duplicate.
Edward M. Kennedy, who served in the Senate for more than four decades, died at his Massachusetts home Tuesday. "We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever," his family said.
Susan Walsh, AP
Susan Walsh, AP
The Congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann, of the Brookings Institution, said he had been searching hard for any U.S. senator in history whose reach and tenure equaled Kennedy's. "None of them quite match up,'' he concluded, "not because of any one piece of legislation . . . but because he was so skilled at extracting whatever he could'' on any given issue. In his party, "many shared his views, and others are prepared to negotiate with Republicans if they're ever in the mood to negotiate, but this is the passing of a giant.''
(Mann does, however, dispute the view that we'd be celebrating the passage of a bipartisan health care reform bill by now if only Kennedy had been healthy enough to honcho it. And he says that there are, too, up-and-coming liberal legislators in the pipeline: "Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the brighter new members coming in.'' And? Dick Durbin of Illinois "has those qualities,'' he said, "and umm, let's see, let me pull out the list here . . .'' His other picks included Jack Reed, who like Whitehouse is from Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Carl Levin of Michigan, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and even . . . New York's Chuck Schumer? By which point, even on this sad day, I was laughing. "Chuck Schumer is an acquired taste,'' Mann allowed, "but a consequential player in the Senate. You never would have known from Kennedy's first 10 years in the Senate that he would grow into this, either.'')
Meanwhile, "it just breaks your heart,'' liberal activist Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films told me on the phone this morning. "One doesn't like to think that anybody is irreplaceable or unique, but there isn't anyone able to walk in his shoes. . . . Maybe, maybe, maybe, his death will make some people look in the mirror, take stock and step up so we'll see more heroism than calibration.'' Maybe.
"It may take a generation,'' said Kennedy's friend and former aide Carl Wagner. "But at least we have a reference point.''
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