As someone who calls themselves a pragmatic progressive, I have always been fascinated with the strategies employed by Senator Ted Kennedy. And so, it is with great interest that I read Frances Lee’s review of the book Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Congress by Nick Littlefield and David Nexon. As members of Kennedy’s domestic policy team, Littlefield and Nexon had an inside look at the strategies he deployed for dealing with Congress during the height of the Gingrich revolution (1995-1996).
Here is how Lee describes the dilemma Kennedy and the Democrats faced.
A minority party in Congress always faces the strategic dilemma of whether to prioritize accommodation or confrontation. Politics and policy frequently trade off against one another in these circumstances. Members of a minority party can often exercise limited legislative influence by participating in the majority’s efforts and trading their support for policy concessions. But in so doing, the minority party loses the ability to clearly define issues for voters in subsequent elections. Littlefield and Nexon detail how Kennedy navigated this dilemma, both as a question of overall party strategy and on an issue-by-issue basis.
Kennedy’s first task was to rally dispirited Democrats following the 1995 election.
Kennedy’s view was that Democrats had to rally energetically around the party’s traditional priorities: health care, education, jobs, and wages…Kennedy’s view, Littlefield and Nexon write, was that “passivity usually doesn’t work in politics. The party setting the agenda, bringing energy and vitality to the contest, clear in its convictions, beats the party that is confused, sullen, reactive, defensive, incoherent, and accommodating.”
Next came the challenge of navigating the dilemma described above on an issue-by-issue basis. One the one hand…
Kennedy’s strategy of what the authors call “across-the-board resistance to Republican extremism” worked for purposes of both campaigning and policy. Drawing lines in the sand helped to revitalize a demoralized Democratic Party. At the same time, Democrats also had sufficient institutional power to block the Republican legislative drive via the presidential veto and the Senate filibuster. These conflicts helped set the stage for Democratic success in the 1996 elections.
On the other hand, Kennedy negotiated wins on raising the minimum wage (by rallying public support) and health care reforms – which were the result of working closely with Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum.
In terms of how this might/might not be informative for Democrats dealing with being in the minority today, Lee points out two important ways that things are different now: (1) the fact that there are no Nancy Kassebaums in the Republican Party today, and (2) the fact that the Republicans are now post-policy.
A majority party that has no positive agenda has much less motive to negotiate, and its leaders have much less capacity to do so. A minority that is able to block has negotiating leverage only when the majority has legislation it hopes to enact in the first place.
After reading this review, it is tempting to not only miss Senator Kennedy’s presence in Congress but to also and bemoan the current state of affairs. So I’m going to leave you with this reminder of what he said to us the last time he addressed the country: “The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”