In the fall of 2009, at the height of the debate over health care reform, it was not uncommon for Senate Republicans to lament Ted Kennedy’s demise. It’s not that GOP lawmakers agreed with the Liberal Lion on the substance; it’s that Republicans looked at Kennedy as a senator who knew how to reach bipartisan compromises.
I distinctly remember watching Sen. Orrin Hatch in late August 2009 appearing on one of the Sunday shows, saying in reference to the legendary Massachusetts Democrat, “If he was here, I don’t think we’d be in the mess we’re in right now.”
Even at the time, it was an odd sentiment. Kennedy may have excelled in striking deals, but he always needed a negotiating partner interested in finding an agreement – and in the case of health care reform, Republicans occasionally even admitted they weren’t prepared to accept any compromise, no matter what President Obama and Democrats offered.
Nearly three years later, the argument seems to have became relevant again.
As the sequester enters its second week, one right-wing politician has a surprising answer for how to break the stalemate in Washington: “We need Ted Kennedy,” says Republican Kansas Governor and former Senator Sam Brownback.
“It’s hard for a guy like me to say, but Ted would reach across the aisle and say ‘for the good of the country’ we need to solve this problem, Brownback tells me…. “You need some people stepping up like that.”
Brownback served with Kennedy for 15 years, and got to know the Democrat fairly well. What’s more, it’s true that Kennedy would be the type of senator who would and could effectively reach out across the aisle in the hopes of working out an acceptable deal.
But even if we put aside the irony of Republicans praising Ted Kennedy – for decades, he was a go-to rhetorical punching bag for the right – Brownback’s lament, like so much of Washington’s stunted debate, overlooks the most salient detail: even if Kennedy were alive today, he’d have no one to talk to.
Right now, when it comes to the fiscal debate, Republicans have said they won’t compromise, and the only acceptable deal is the one in which they get 100% of what they want. President Obama has put overly-generous concessions on the table, and invited GOP officials to outline what kind of concessions they’re prepared to accept. So far, it’s a blank sheet of paper.
Brownback’s suggestion seems to be there’s no one on the Democratic side willing, “for the good of the country,” to make tough choices and accept a compromise. But in reality, we don’t “need Ted Kennedy”; we need a few Republicans who Ted Kennedy would have talked to.