Edward Kennedy’s Gifts

All politicians make political calculations, weighing different options in the messy process of legislation and forming political arrangements. Political compromise and adjustment is a necessary and important skill for free societies governed by a combination of chief executives and legislatures, often of different political parties. However, is it wrong to admit a guilty pleasure – schadenfreude – when Machiavellian manipulations, outside the scope of political good faith and respect for free institutions, backfire?  For at least a couple of these pleasures, we can turn to the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

Perhaps Edward Kennedy’s greatest unintentional gift to Conservatives came during the 1980 presidential campaign. High inflation, high unemployment, and high interest rates had severely eroded the political popularity of President Jimmy Carter. The political positions of  Kennedy and Carter did not differ much substantively, but a weak incumbent gave Kennedy an opportunity for a primary challenge and ti serve personal ambition. Although Kennedy won only ten primaries to Carter’s twenty-four, Kennedy ate away at Carter’s support by continuing his challenge to the convention, hoping for rules changes there that might give Kennedy the nomination. The number of Carter delegates was too overwhelming and they defeated Kennedy’s procedural challenges at the convention. Out of respect, Kennedy was given the opportunity to address the convention. In a rousing conclusion, Kennedy acknowledged defeat but despite his loss “the work goes on, the cause continues, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”   The speech made Carter’s later performance seem mediocre. Although Carter survived the Kennedy challenge, he emerged from the Democratic National Convention weaker, leading a demoralized and divided Democratic Party, helping in part to usher the Reagan era. Thank you.

In 2004, the other Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, was running against President George W. Bush. If Kerry managed to defeat the incumbent president, under state law, Republican Governor Mitt Romney would appoint a Senator to fill out the term. A Republican Senator from Massachusetts was too much for Democrats to stomach. With the encouragement of Kennedy, the Democratically-dominated state legislature gamed the system. They changed the law to establish a special election to fill vacancies.  Reasonable and well-intentioned people can disagree about  the appropriate procedure  for filling a senatorial vacancy. However, this change was not based on principle, but was intentionally designed to gane the system for immediate political advantage. This decision would ultimately come back to haunt Kennedy and Democrats in Massachusetts.

Kennedy’s signature issue was health care. He has always advocated a government managed and financed health care system. When he unfortunately took ill in 2009 with what proved to be terminal cancer he knew that he might not survive to usher through health care reform. His last votes in the Senate were in early April 2009. If Kennedy had resigned under these circumstances, he could have provided ample opportunity for a hand-picked successor to win election as Senator with his direct endorsement. However, political vanity was more important and Kennedy hung on to his office until his death in August, 2009. The cause of health care reform would have been better served if he resigned, but a personal desire to keep his office-for-life overwhelmed this calculation. Kennedy did not know with certainty that  clinging to office would undermine the cause of his life, but he did know that he was no longer capable of leading or even participating in the fight in the Senate. Kennedy clutched to his office until the end. Is it too mean-spirited to exploit the metaphor that while health care legislation was drowning, Kennedy was swimming to the shore of personal political indulgence?

If the Massachusetts senatorial succession procedure had not been altered in unashamedly political manipulation in 2004,  Democratic Governor Deval Patrick would have appointed a Democrat to fill out Edward Kennedy’s term. There would have been no opportunity for Republican Scott Brown to ride a wave a political dissatisfaction with conspicuous manipulations and payoffs to arrive at medicare legislation, and  to  upset the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. Scott’s election killed health care legislation in its current form and wounded the Democratic Party. For this we, we can in no small measure thank Edward Kennedy and recognize the justice that self-aggrandizement and political corruption was not in this case rewarded.

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