Reconsidering Kennedy: A Senator's Legacy

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 27, 2009

Kennedy in the Senate

There can be no doubt that Ted Kennedy will be remembered in the history books as one of the most consequential people to have ever served in the United States Senate. After a pronounced period of irresolution in his private life that manifested itself into a lack of seriousness in his public service, Kennedy finally learned that it would never be enough to just be a Senator; he had to do something while serving. It took Robert Byrd ousting him as Senate Majority Whip in 1971, and Jimmy Carter delivering on his promise to “whip [Kennedy's] ass” in the fight for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1980 to do it, but at long last, Ted Kennedy became a serious United States Senator, and an acknowledged legislative grandmaster, one who was both comfortable with the procedures and rules of the United States Senate, but with the substance of legislation as well.

No one doubts the legislative skill Kennedy ended up showing. And no one doubts that he acted as his conscience dictated on the issues of the day. But while we can and should celebrate his life, and tip our hats to his service–even if, like me, we find ourselves on the opposite side of the political divide from where Ted Kennedy spent a lifetime standing–we ought to view his legislative legacy with a critical eye.

Start with Kennedy in opposition. He showed some of his best stuff as a legislative tactician and strategist with the election of Ronald Reagan and the relegation of Senate Democrats to minority status–the first time that Kennedy had served in the minority since he was first elected to the Senate. As a member of the minority, Kennedy displayed his now-famous ability to reach across the aisle and work closely with Republicans on selective issues that could–and often did–attract bipartisan support. But that ability was nowhere to be found when the nomination of Robert Bork for the United States Supreme Court reached the Senate in 1987. Upon hearing of the nomination, Kennedy engaged in what is now considered to be one of the more infamous bits of demagoguery witnessed in the modern political period:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.

All of this was not only nonsense, it was nonsense-on-stilts. To be sure, there was a tactical advantage to the inflammatory rhetoric; it shocked the Reagan Administration and helped rally liberals to work against the Bork nomination with a sense of mission, urgency, and organization not often found on the liberal side. But Kennedy’s statements were patently untrue, and what’s more, the Senator had to know that they were untrue. It is nice and good that Kennedy was able to restore a sense of decorum and gentlemanly behavior when it came to a whole host of other legislative battles, but when it came to the Bork nomination, his sense of propriety, decorum, and fair play were sorely lacking. Those who wonder how American political debate became so coarse, so unrefined, and so demagogic, ought to look at Kennedy’s speech on Bork as a catalyst for the national descent into a prolonged political shouting match.

Of course, Kennedy in opposition was just part of the portrait. Kennedy the active legislator was another. He certainly had a great many legislative accomplishments to his name, many of which could be praised by Democrats and Republicans alike. One does not, after all, spend 47 years in the Senate without having done some good.

But while Kennedy will be remembered as one of the prime legislative movers behind the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, we ought to remember as well that SCHIP simply does not work well as a public policy measure. While Kennedy will be remembered as a powerful ally for those who sought and seek minimum wage increases, we ought to remember that the minimum wage is vastly inferior to the Earned Income Tax Credit when it comes to helping lower income workers. And while Kennedy worked with Republicans like George W. Bush in order to pass No Child Left Behind, there can be no doubt that No Child Left Behind was a failure, and that it is much more preferable to devolve power to states and localities, in order to let them put into effect policies like educational choice, which would really go a long way towards helping augment the state of education in America. Needless to say, Ted Kennedy, the lifelong friend of Big Government and the lifelong ally of teachers’ unions and their parochial interests, never had any intention whatsoever of reaching across the aisle to make educational choice and local control of education policy a reality.

Despite some of his personal failings, I am perfectly willing to consider Ted Kennedy a good man, and a patriot who did what he thought was right. He will remain a symbol of greatness to liberals. His legislative legacy will be pored over for decades–even centuries–to come. But as Nick Gillespie points out, Ted Kennedy “was in fact a man out of time, a bridge back to the past rather than a guide to the future. His mind-set was very much of a piece with a best-and-the-brightest, centralized mentality that has never served America well over the long haul.”

So, let’s remember Ted Kennedy. And let’s remember him well. Let’s celebrate the man, his service, his love of country, and his good intentions. But let’s stop pretending–even now–that his ideas and ideals are what America needs to meet and overcome its current policy challenges.

Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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