In August, America lost one of its greatest leaders in Sen. Ted Kennedy. Senator Kennedy was, by all accounts, a man rooted in a firm set of beliefs and principles. It is no secret that, in his personal views, he was as liberal as any of his Senate contemporaries, if not more so. For nearly five decades, he was the most outspoken champion of almost every Democratic cause. But what made him so exceptional was not his partisanship but his ability and willingness to set party aside when there was some good to be done.
Many of the failings of our current political climate are the result of too many politicians being too willing to toe the party line. Those in the majority are often unwilling to compromise on their agendas, even when accepting the ideas and contributions of those outside their party will advance their cause. And much of the time, those in the minority get caught up in the idea of opposition for opposition's sake. This is often true of both parties. In fact, neither Republicans nor Democrats have cornered the market on political virtue.
Compromise. Senator Kennedy was one of the few in Washington who looked beyond the battle over daily sound bites to focus on the bigger picture. When the Democrats were in the minority, he was often willing to move to the center or even the center-right when he recognized that Republicans shared his goals, even if they had different ideas on how to achieve those goals. An obvious example of this came with the creation of the Child Health Insurance Program in 1997. For years, Senator Kennedy had pushed the idea of providing health insurance for needy children. Like most liberal Democrats, Kennedy pictured the ideal solution in the form of an expansive government program run exclusively at the federal level by federal bureaucrats. However, in the mid-1990s, we Republicans held a majority in both chambers of Congress after pushing a small-government platform that, in large part, focused on restoring the authority of the states. Instead of placating interest groups by waiting years for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate, Senator Kennedy worked with me to craft a bill that very likely looked different from what he had initially imagined—the CHIP legislation placed most decision-making authority for the program in the hands of the states—but accomplished his desired goals. As a result, Congress passed the original CHIP bill with broad, bipartisan support. In the years since, it has provided health coverage to millions of needy children throughout the country.
Senator Kennedy's approach to the legislative process when the Democrats were in the majority was even more remarkable. While he did not shy away from capitalizing on electoral victories, he always believed that consensus brought credibility, that a wider base of support usually led to more effective policies. During those times, he had the political courage to defy interest groups and even his own party in order to reach bipartisan compromise. He and I were able to work together on such legislative efforts as the Ryan White AIDS Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and, most recently, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, just to mention a few. In these and other cases, Senator Kennedy had ample motivation and opportunity to move the legislation so far to the left that no Republican would vote for it. Instead, he actively courted the support of Republicans and made substantive changes in order to get them on board.
While he was indisputably a persuasive negotiator and a master parliamentarian, Senator Kennedy's success as a legislator was due mostly to his willingness to make sure that compromise was more than a slogan and to get others to follow suit. It is this type of leadership that has been lacking in the recent effort to reform our healthcare system, leading members of both parties to lament his absence from the current debate.
Some will no doubt remember Senator Kennedy for some of his high-profile personal failings. Such is to be expected for a man who remained in the public spotlight for so many years. However, his most lasting legacy will be reflected in the legislation he was able to pass, much of which has demonstrated his unwillingness to let partisanship ruin a good opportunity to help those in need, and his ability to inspire others to follow his example.