I finished reading the late Senator Ted Kennedy's autobiography, True Compass, on the plane ride back home from California yesterday. It reminded me that Teddy Kennedy was no blind partisan. Sure, he called Republicans on the carpet when they deserved it and campaigned vociferously for fellow Democrats, including President Obama. But he also looked for bipartisan opportunities to pass legislation to strengthen education and further social justice. His work on the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) with two different Presidents Bush are testament to his legislative accomplishment and his focus -- especially in the latter part of his career -- on being a policymaker first and a partisan firebrand second. His Senate colleagues, Democrat and Republican, agreed. But he also leaves a legislative legacy in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), his work with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to expand SCHIP, and his tireless effort which resulted in the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act of 2009.
Sadly, Kennedy seems to represent a bygone era. There are too few honest brokers left in Congress, willing to reach across the aisle and put in the hard work to build something rather than destroy it. Among the 535 congresspersons and senators, sure there are some legislative diehards. But there aren't enough of them. And they are overshadowed in our modern, media-driven politics by the bomb throwers, would-be (and actual) talk radio hosts, rhetorical empty vessels, obstructionists, partisan extortionists, and finger-to-the-wind moderate extortionists.
Being a hard-working legislator doesn't seem to pay off, at least not politically.
In a quest for ideological purity, the Republican Party currently seems most interested in purging its elected officials who dare even speak to members of the other party, let alone hug them. Just ask Lindsay Graham or Susan Collins -- or Florida Governor and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist. Currently, congressional Republicans are staking their immediate political future on a legislative strategy that consists of little more than just saying 'no' and obstructing nominations and votes in the U.S. Senate. Now, Democrats certainly have been complicit of similar conduct in the past, but far more selectively and less brazenly, I believe the congressional record will attest to. Sadly, this political strategy appears to be working, at least for the moment.
Sarah Palin may be the personal embodiment of this ethos. She chose to quit as Alaska Governor in July 2009. Strangely, in the current political context, while seemingly disingenuous and typically unintelligible, her comments actually make a bizarre kind of sense, despite the fact she might run for President (which would be a title, wouldn't it?)
I’ll work hard.... But I won’t do it from the governor’s desk. I’ve never believed that I nor anyone else needs a title to do this, to make a difference, to help people.Short of changing Senate rules (an unlikely band-aid, at best), I am not sure that there is an easy solution to changing the current political culture in Washington or in much of America. What really needs to happen is for the American people to stand up and demand that their elected officials do their jobs, legislate, and focus on the nation's problems, dealing honestly with disagreements on the issues. Perhaps the President's proposed health care summit will provide a narrow opportunity to do that. Perhaps more attention need be paid to "Congress behaving badly" stories to shame them into changing their ways.
But we can't rely on summits and exposés to deal with all of the problems and issues that need addressing. The whole political dynamic needs to change, as James Fallows argues in the January/February 2010 Atlantic magazine and in this blog post. Summon the spirit and example of Teddy Kennedy! Some how, some way, the bipartisanship that existed in generations past needs to be reborn. In the end, it is going to come down to the leadership of the folks in power, to build and leverage personal relationships with their colleagues in the other party -- some risking thoughtless and unfair political recriminations in doing so -- to make life better for the American people.
But on this score, sadly, I'm just not all that optimistic.
UPDATE: Neither is Senator Evan Bayh apparently....