Four years ago this week, Ted Kennedy changed history with the sheer force of his will.
Senate Democrats, battling with the Bush administration, were one vote short of the total they needed to maintain a key provision of Medicare.
Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, then used a lifeline: He called Kennedy, who was in Boston receiving chemotherapy for brain cancer, and pleaded for the liberal giant to return to Washington to provide the clinching vote.
When Kennedy walked onto the floor on July 9, 2008, senators on both sides erupted in cheers, and some wept. The Medicare bill passed — with nine Republican senators switching their previous votes to be on Kennedy’s side.
Among those cheering the loudest that day was Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, Kennedy’s longtime legislative partner, who wrote a song for Kennedy upon learning of his friend’s illness and eulogized him at his memorial.
I was reminded of this moment when talking in recent days with senators and veteran Capitol Hill correspondents about what has gone wrong in the Senate. A leading theory: There are no giants in the chamber today, no figure with the stature of a Kennedy who could carry votes with his mere presence. There is no longer a revered figure — a Byrd, a Dole, a Moynihan, a Chafee, a Nunn, a John Warner — whose authority could transcend party and the usual arithmetic of vote counting. Some have died. Some have retired. Others, such as Hatch and John McCain, have been lost to the exigencies of survival in a hyperpartisan political system.
Hatch could have been one of today’s giants. First elected in 1976, he is in line, as the longest-serving Republican, to be Senate president pro tempore if the GOP reclaims the majority in November. He has a long record of legislative success and a moral authority that is beyond question.
But to keep his job, he had to fight off a primary challenge from the tea party — and to prevail last month, the would-be giant diminished himself, tacking sharply to the right.
When Hatch gave a speech on Obamacare on Monday — four years to the day since he cheered Kennedy’s brief return — he sounded like just another petty partisan. “The difficulty that we will face in undoing ‘Obamacare’ does not mitigate the necessity of repealing this law in its entirety,” he said at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And should the Republicans take back the Senate, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, repeal of ‘Obamacare’ will be my first, second and third priority.”
Really? A higher priority for the Senate Finance Committee chairman than balancing the budget, reducing the debt and reforming the tax code?
In stooping to join the legislature’s Lilliputians, Hatch is just following the pack. Research by The Washington Post’s Paul Kane turned up an extraordinary finding: 43 of the Senate’s 100 members are in their freshman term, the most since the post-Watergate cleanout. By comparison, after the 2004 election, there were only 30 first-term senators.
In many cases, the voters didn’t trade up: Scott Brown for Kennedy in Massachusetts, Mark Begich for Alaska’s Ted Stevens, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin for Robert Byrd. One cycle earlier, the venerable South Carolinian Fritz Hollings, of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing fame, was replaced by Jim DeMint, of tea-party fame.
Walk into the reception room off the Senate floor, and frescoes of the chamber’s giants gaze at you from all directions: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun from the 19th century; Robert La Follette, Robert A. Taft, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert F. Wagner from the 20th century.
A few steps away, their 21st-century successors were out on the floor on Tuesday, engaged in their usual smallness, debating tax credits that have no chance of surviving the legislative process. Reid led off the debate, accusing Republicans of helping “megarich celebrities like Donald Trump” and “fabulously rich so-called small-business owners like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.”
Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, responded by blaming President Obama for the “slowest recovery ever” and for championing a “complete and total absurdity” of a tax policy.
You don’t have to go back to Daniel Webster to appreciate the current plague of legislative dwarfism. When Hatch came to the Senate in 1977, he was surrounded by contemporaneous and future giants: Jackson, Javits, Muskie, McGovern, Baker, Goldwater — and a 44-year-old Ted Kennedy.
Their bloodlines have all run dry.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is email@example.com.