The Next Ted Kennedy? There Isn't One

By Glenn Thrush
|  Thursday, Aug 27, 2009  |  Updated 3:45 PM CDT
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Ted Kennedy's Life in Photos

AP

Kennedy's fervor has enabled him to usher in a host of legislation to help working Americans in the past four decades.

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There is no shortage of politicians hoping to take Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, but there’s no real candidate to fill Kennedy’s role as leader of the Senate liberals. 

A handful of well-known and ambitious progressives in the upper chamber are eager to carry on Kennedy’s legacy — including his fellow Massachusetts native John Kerry, his best friend Chris Dodd of Connecticut, plus Tom Harkin of Iowa, Dick Durbin of lllinois and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

But none possesses the alchemical mixture of celebrity, seniority, personal charm, legislative savvy and ideological zeal that made Kennedy the most effective liberal in a generation — and one of the most accomplished legislative yeomen in Congressional history.

“There will never be anyone like him again — he truly is irreplaceable,’ said former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who worked elbow-to-elbow with Kennedy on family leave and minimum wage bills in the early 1990s.

“There is no personality that as soon as you see them you say, ‘There’s the leader of the progressives’ — Kennedy was it,” says Bill Cunningham, a former top aide to the late New York Sen. Pat Moynihan, a longtime Kennedy friend who worked closely with him on health care reform.

Kennedy’s absence during the health care debate has been a serious blow to progressives deprived of his forceful advocacy for the “public option” passed by his committee.

“This was someone who someone who carried the celebrity power, had the ability to get their message heard and had the legislative skills,” said Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution.

“It took Ted Kennedy a hell of a long time to become Ted Kennedy, so I don’t think anyone’s going to become Ted Kennedy tomorrow,” he added.

The only senator with comparable star power exited the stage months ago. Hillary Clinton’s aides hoped to groom her for a Kennedy-like leadership role when she returned from her presidential defeat in mid-2008, citing her health care fight alongside Kennedy in the early '90s.

Like Kennedy, Clinton had the celebrity and a solid reputation as a legislative workhorse and had created good alliances across the aisle. But unlike Kennedy, whose ideology was firmly fixed in his early 30s, Clinton alienated many progressives by first supporting then opposing the Iraq war — and by adopting expediently centrist positions on issues like supporting a bill targeting flag burning.

Shortly before Clinton’s appointment as secretary of State, some advisers sought to nudge her toward the Kennedy wing of the party, even suggesting she come out in support of gay marriage. But she enjoyed little of the affection Kennedy received, and many of her colleagues remained leery of the former first lady.

“The bottom line is, she was just too young,” said a senior Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The thing about Teddy was that, after 1980, you knew his presidential dreams were dead and that he had no agenda than just passing the bills. With Hillary, you could never be sure she wasn’t preparing for another campaign, so no one could ever really trust her.”

The trust element is key: Kennedy was so trusted by liberals, his say-so alone often won the backing of Senate progressives on Bush-sponsored legislation like No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. 

Those who worked intensely with Kennedy said it was a fun, if disorientating, experience.

“There was always 1,000 moving parts with him — he was the ultimate multitasker,” recalls Reich, now a professor at UC-Berkeley and liberal NPR commentator. “The first 10 times I met with him, I was confused, I didn’t know what he was talking about … He always left out the first and last words of his sentences, I felt like I was drowning. But once you understood his language, you were fine and the humor always came through — that flash in his blue eyes when he hit on some particular legislative tactic.”

Kerry, who first forged a relationship with Kennedy as a 1970s anti-Vietnam War veteran, is likely to assume a larger role in Kennedy’s absence. According to several top Democratic aides, Kerry is well-respected and has mellowed since his return to the chamber in 2004 — although he lacks some of Kennedy’s magnetism and patience, the staffers said.

First-term Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) lacks Kerry’s name recognition but impressed many in his party’s left wing with his defense of liberal legal principles on the Judiciary Committee.

In the absence of Kennedy, liberals will likely opt for a-la-carte leadership on issues: Ohio’s Sherrod Brown on working-class economic issues, Harkin on labor, Durbin on social justice, Feingold on war and Dodd carrying Kennedy’s health care reform torch.

At the moment, none of them possesses Kennedy’s personal touch.

Kennedy, one Democratic aide said, was the “coolest kid in the Senate — the prep school senior who would invite you to lunch instead of stuffing you in the locker.” Many of the 2006 freshmen members awed by Kennedy were surprised to earn invites to his Capitol hideaway during late-night votes, as the Massachusetts Democrat asked them questions about their families and political views.

For older senators, including Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dodd, Kennedy was almost like a brother, keeping tabs on them during times of personal triumph and crisis.

When Dodd underwent prostate surgery two weeks ago, the first call he received was from the gravely ill Kennedy, who welcomed him to cancer surgery club and joked about the annoyance of catheters.

"I lost my sister about a month ago,” Dodd told reporters in Connecticut on Wednesday. “And I feel this pain almost as much.”

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