A Game Plan That Should Not Die

What today’s Democrats can learn from Ted Kennedy’s maneuvering his way through and around a Republican Congress.

With the U.S. Congress in Republican control, perhaps for a long time to come, Democrats and progressives need insight on how to be an effective minority party. Lion of the Senate, a new book by two members of Senator Ted Kennedy’s domestic policy team, Nick Littlefield and David Nexon, may be able to offer some advice. Lion of the Senate is a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the 104th Congress (1995-96) from the vantage point of Senator Kennedy’s senior policy advisers. The working title of the book had been “Stalling the Juggernaut,” because so much of the account focuses on how Democrats successfully resisted the Republican push to enact the Contract with America. But the book also details how Kennedy, despite his minority-party status, was able to assert policy leadership and achieve significant legislative successes during those years. The book will undoubtedly be of interest as fine-grained history. But readers are likely to ask whether it might also offer a blueprint for a successful minority party in the contemporary Congress.

Nov-15-Littlefield-Nexon-BooksLion of the Senate:
When Ted Kennedy Rallied the
Democrats in a GOP Congress

by Nick Littlefield and David Nexon
Simon & Schuster, 528 pp.

The story of the Republican Revolution has been told many times, almost always from the Republican perspective. The standard account centers on Speaker Newt Gingrich, who rose to leadership on the strength of a large, ideological class of freshmen elected in 1994, pressed an ambitious policy agenda, and faced numerous setbacks and embarrassments, but in the end had consequential effects on budgetary, welfare, and tax policy. Littlefield and Nexon offer a new perspective on those years, detailing how Democrats coalesced in resistance, deployed the Senate filibuster and the presidential veto to halt the Republican legislative drive, and then, via bipartisan wheeling and dealing, succeeded in enacting some key Democratic priorities, including raising the minimum wage and expanding access to health insurance.

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.

When Senator Ted Kennedy arrived back in Washington after the 1994 elections, he encountered a Democratic Party that had no consensus about strategy. Kennedy’s initial analysis, according to the authors, was that Democrats were “shattered” by the results of the election. Observers at the time widely interpreted the election results as a mandate for scaling back the federal government, and many Democrats favored a cautious, accommodating response. Lion of the Senate recounts a meeting of Senate Democrats on the Labor Committee early in the 104th Congress where the preferred strategy was to “wait and lay low.” House Democrats similarly favored a reactive posture. Being out of power freed them up to wait on the Republican budget without proposing an alternative. “Let’s wait for the Republicans to come up with answers,” said Representative Barney Frank. “And then we can show how unpopular they are.”

Kennedy’s view was that Democrats had to rally energetically around the party’s traditional priorities: health care, education, jobs, and wages. Having just decisively beaten back Mitt Romney’s strong challenge to his own Senate seat, Kennedy had new reason to believe in the enduring power of those issues to mobilize the party’s constituencies. 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.” Kennedy worked to bring other Democrats around to his perspective. He laid out his strategy in a National Press Club address in January 1995 in which he contended that “if Democrats run for cover … we will lose, and deserve to lose.… The last thing the country needs is two Republican parties.”

Democratic Party unity in resisting the Republican Revolution was never monolithic. President Bill Clinton himself exhibited a tendency toward softness and compromise that frequently alarmed Kennedy and his staff. The book details Kennedy’s “struggle for the mind of the president” as the senator sought to counter advisers who were recommending that Clinton preemptively move toward Republicans by prioritizing tax cuts and deficit reduction. Kennedy emphasized that the “budget is a political document, not a policy statement,” and thought that the president should use the budget to clearly define what the party stands for and to sharpen the contrasts with Republicans.

In the end, while Clinton continued to press ahead on some centrist policies like welfare reform, he took Kennedy’s advice on others. In the next couple of years, the president and congressional Democrats found their voice rallying against Republican cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. 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.

Lion in the Senate also details the Democrats’ achievements in winning a minimum wage increase and significant health insurance reforms, despite being in the minority. Kennedy brokered a compromise between labor unions and conservative Democrats on the size of a minimum wage increase, brought the president on board with the plan, and tirelessly advocated for it. With Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole basing much of his presidential campaign on his skill as a legislative leader, Kennedy was able to hold the whole Republican agenda hostage by offering the minimum wage increase as an amendment to any bill Republicans brought to the floor. The deadlock robbed Dole of legislative successes to tout on the campaign trail, prompting him to resign from the Senate to campaign instead. (For more on this strategy and how Obama has used it during his presidency, see Paul Glastris, “Working the GOP’s Weak Spot,” Washington Monthly, June/July/August 2014.)

It is not clear how much the Democrats’ win on minimum wage can be attributed specifically to Senate procedural maneuvering, because House Republicans ultimately caved in and passed the increase first. The sheer popularity of this potent issue was likely the decisive factor, particularly in light of Republicans’ worry—well justified by the polling of the time—about retaining their congressional majorities in the 1996 elections.

The Democrats’ 1996 success on health care portability was a testimony to the close working relationship Kennedy had forged with his Republican counterpart on the Labor Committee, Nancy Kassebaum. The two worked out a bipartisan insurance reform proposal that limited pre-existing condition exclusions and enabled Americans to change jobs without fear of losing their health insurance. Amazingly, this bill was passed unanimously out of the Labor Committee, but it faced a long, hard road to passage, as sponsors faced tremendous difficulty getting the Republican leadership to schedule the bill on the Senate floor and working out a compromise with House leaders. Key to the Democrats’ success was the Republicans’ worry about being deemed ineffectual in running Congress. For their part, House Democrats were split on the politics of the issue, because they wanted to run against Republicans as the “do nothing Congress.” In the end, the deal was muscled through, and health insurance policy was incrementally improved. As a price of success, the deal probably also weakened the Democratic argument for retaking Congress by helping Republicans lay claim to a reputation as an effective, and in some cases even moderate, majority party.

The pressing question is the extent to which Kennedy’s model can work for a Democratic minority today. No doubt, any minority party can benefit from forcefully championing popular issues that unify its base and attract swing voters. A minority party also benefits from resisting the majority, whenever the majority’s initiatives are unpopular or can be successfully portrayed in a negative light. A president and congressional party executing these strategies in tandem makes them both far more effective. Cohesion across the branches of government can never be taken for granted, and it usually requires active coordination like that initiated by Kennedy. However, many of the other pathways to affirmative legislative success described by Littlefield and Nexon seem less open to the minority Democrats of today.

First, it is simply not clear that there are any contemporary parallels to the across-the-aisle relationship of Kennedy and Kassebaum on the Labor Committee or between Kennedy and Orrin Hatch on expanding children’s health insurance. Although the book is told from Kennedy’s point of view, it is clear that Kassebaum weathered ferocious cross-pressures, withstanding contradictory demands from her own party in the Senate as well as from Republican negotiators in the House. According to Littlefield and Nexon, there were an astounding sixty-five offers and counteroffers in the negotiations, and Kassebaum served as the intermediary throughout. Are there any Republicans today able to persist in cross-party negotiations in the face of this kind of intraparty blowback and resistance from their own party’s leaders?

Perhaps the most important difference between the Republicans of 1995-96 and those of 2015-16 is that the Republican revolutionaries had an affirmative legislative agenda that they wanted to pass. The party had many internal frictions, but it was far more unified than the Republican Party of today. Republicans’ desire for positive legislative accomplishment gave them reason to compromise on some issues in exchange for progress on others. A consensus agenda both allowed the party to prioritize its goals and empowered its leaders to act. 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.

A close look back to the congressional politics of 1995-96 refreshes Democratic memories on the party’s traditional sources of strength. It also offers an object lesson in how veto points can protect a minority party’s priorities in the wake of electoral defeat. But Democrats may not have any partners on the other side to negotiate with for a long time to come.

Frances E. Lee

Frances E. Lee is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate.