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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

After Kennedy: Obama’s Burden…and Ours

To get a full sense of the void Senator Kennedy leaves in his party and Congress, consider the likely successors to replace him at the top of the powerful Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), which plays a vital role in protecting living standards across the nation. In order of seniority, they are: Chris Dodd; Tom Harkin and Barbara Mikulski — fine Senators all, but none with the clout and skill of Kennedy. As Paul Kane explains in WaPo:

Kennedy ruled as the top Democrat on the committee for more than two decades, using the perch to serve as the Senate’s lead agitator for increasing the minimum wage, expanding civil rights to cover the handicapped and gay Americans, and for promoting what he long called “the cause of my life” — universal health care.

Atop The HELP committee is clearly a great place to be for aspiring national leaders, addressing core concerns of the Democratic Party. Yet, to run HELP, Dodd would have to give up the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee and Harkin would surrender the the helm of the Agriculture Committee, important committees, particularly in their respective states. The new chair won’t be selected until after the recess.
The stature of Democratic senators shrinks considerably in Kennedy’s fading shadow. As the media turns to other congressional Democrats to articulate their Party’s agenda, the ranks will likely appear even thinner. Kennedy was a mediagenic star of unrivaled magnitude in Congress, as well as a highly-skilled legislator. There is no other U.S. Senator with anything close to the progressive gravitas and leverage Kennedy commanded.
All of which is likely to strengthen President Obama’s hand as the leader of his Party. But it will almost certainly increase the demands on him to speak out more forcefully. Absent Ted Kennedy, there is no one other than Obama who can credibly be called “the real leader of the Democrats.” Obama will have to abandon much of his low-key approach to legislative reform and step up. It might be a good idea for him to hire a couple of Kennedy’s top staffers to help navigate health care reform and other key bills through Congress.
Obama has another burden, to lift the spirits of a nation coming to grips with the end of the Kennedy era. I know it may not mean so much to the younger generation. But I and a millions of other Americans can still remember what America felt like under JFK’s administration, the can-do spirit and sense of hope that was shattered in Dallas. We remember how RFK grew a heart in Marks, Mississippi, and how he went on to inspire a renewed faith in America’s potential as a nation where opportunity and brotherhood could flourish, his journey also clipped by assasination, just two months after MLK was killed. And then EMK, who did much to translate their dreams into legislative reality (see Ed Kilgore’s post yesterday), his life ending on the eve of fulfilling his greatest dream — health security for all Americans.
It’s a huge burden the President is called to bear. Fortunately, he has the smarts and inspirational skills to lead the struggle ahead. But he will need all the help he can get, including the expertise of Senator Kennedy’s best and brightest, and especially the support of America’s progressive community. For the President, and for all who hold fast to the dream, answering this call is the great challenge of our time.

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