After the failure to achieve bipartisan legislation on economic stimulus and health care, the whole conception of bipartisanship is being assailed from across the political spectrum. It is decried as naïve and panglossian, the attempt to actually turn politics into beanbag. Its practitioners are slandered as wobbly-kneed, weak-spined compromisers who would sell all their principles for a few extra votes.
But the greatest blow to bipartisanship may be the untimely loss Edward Kennedy. Senator Kennedy’s contribution to bipartisan is absolutely unmatched. He worked with
- John McCain and Alan Simpson on immigration reform
- Nancy Kassebaum on health insurance portability
- Orrin Hatch on state children’s health insurance (SCHIP), AIDs funding, insuring religious freedom and national service
- Chuck Grassley on Medicaid
- Michael Enzi on AIDS funding, international competitiveness, and higher education funding
- Bill Frist on bioterrorism
- Kay Hutchison on cancer detection
- Pete Domenici on mental health
- Judd Gregg on student loan forgiveness
- Richard Lugar on democratization in Latin America
- George Bush on Medicare drug coverage (up to a point) and “No Child Left Behind” educational reforms
This portfolio disproves the notion that bipartisanship is the thing of naifs and the unprincipled. Clearly, Senator Kennedy was neither. The “Lion of the Senate” was a tough politician who never shied away from the rough-n-tumble of politics. Most, importantly he never compromised on the things that really mattered to him such as civil rights or improving the lives of the disadvantaged. Rather bipartisanship was a tool used to advance that agenda. Perhaps because he was a Kennedy in Massachusetts, his job security allowed him to take the long view of politics that bipartisanship requires. When bipartisanship failed, he could be a partisan’s partisan. But he never burned the bipartisan bridges he would need on the next leg of his journey. Remarkably Kennedy did not settle for working only with moderate Republicans. Two of his favorite collaborators, Orren Hatch and Michael Enzi, are among the staunchest conservatives to serve in the Senate.
There are many important lessons to be learned from Kennedy the Bipartisan. One should not have permanent enemies. Find the common ground and seize it. One need not inflate every small disagreement into partisan warfare. Patience will lead to progress. The Democrats would do well to remember these lessons as their disenchantment with bipartisanship grows.
But the most important lesson may be one for the Republicans. Many of Edward Kennedy’s great successes came when Washington was dominated by the Republicans. His ability to identify common ground and work with the Republicans meant that he continued to be a force regardless of which party controlled the chamber. By emulating his example, rather becoming the Nay Party, Republicans can make important contributions without abandoning their core principles.