Friday, August 28, 2009

Misunderstanding Kennedy

Bruce Reed's nice essay on Ted Kennedy is getting some play today, but I think that speculation about a Republican Ted Kennedy is pretty far off the mark.

Republicans are talking up Kennedy's bipartisanship, but Kennedy was not a get-things-done dealmaker in the mold of, say, Bob Dole or Pete Domenici. Dole, like Kennedy, was capable of both intense partisanship and bipartisan solutions, and my guess is that Dole was better at Senate procedure than Kennedy. But Kennedy wasn't a dealmaker at heart; he was a maker of public policy in order to solve what he saw as pressing national problems. In order to solve the problems, he made policy. In order to make policy, he made deals.

Given that understanding, the idea that John McCain could be a Kennedy type is preposterous. McCain showed virtually no interest in public policy or America's problems in either of his presidential campaigns, nor in any of his various phases of his Senate career, whether conservative, liberal, or moderate. His signature domestic issues, campaign finance and earmarks, are procedural, not substantive, and he doesn't even bother mastering the basic facts of earmarks. I could imagine McCain developing a real passion for national security policy, but that's not much of a basis for a great legislative career, and at any rate it isn't really the career that McCain has chosen for himself so far.

Republican spin notwithstanding, bipartisanship was pretty obviously a means, not an end, for Ted Kennedy. It's no surprise that their prime example is NCLB, which took place when Republicans controlled the White House, the House, and (at least during the initial negotiations) the Senate. If Republicans are looking for a party to emulate Kennedy, what they should do is assess the situation, figure out the policy goals that they really want, and bargain for a health care bill that will address those goals. One of the problems with the current GOP is that it's not exactly obvious what those goals might be.

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