A Time for Senator Kennedy

EVENTS OF THE LAST month represent a return of fiercely felt American partisanship - and that is good. The most damaging aspect of the Gore-Bush election campaign was the blurring of differences that both candidates sponsored. As a result, major matters of social policy, military assumptions, and foreign affairs were never debated.

Similarly, the most damaging aspect of the Clinton administration's longtime strategy of co-opting Republican issues by ''governing from the center'' was the way in which the national debate was therefore deprived of any political analysis rooted in commitments to liberalism. Thus, we had ''welfare reform'' that demonized the impoverished and a ''peace dividend'' that was effectively endorsed back over to the Pentagon, where the current budget nearly matches Cold War spending (80 percent in adjusted dollars, according to defense analyst Carl Conetta).

The coming to power of George W. Bush could change all this, and the shift can be sensed in his visit to Washington today. Not that liberal Democrats, obviously, will control levers of government but that they will be set free to engage the debate from positions of principle, instead of accommodation. ''For the first time in eight years,'' as Conetta recently wrote in an incisive article published by the Project on Defense Alternatives, ''congressional Democrats will not be constrained in their action by a Democratic administration ... hellbent on `triangulation' to the right.''

At the lively center of this new political possibility stands a figure who has exercised enormous power in the past but who may now become more powerful than ever - Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Certainly Democratic leaders like Richard Gephardt and Thomas Daschle will be key, but Kennedy's role is unique. In the phrase the writer Burton Hersh used for the title of his 1997 book, this senator has been, in fact, ''The Shadow President,'' and he will be once again. Famously liberal, yet his entire legislative career shows that partisan commitment does not mean gridlock. As Adam Clymer and others point out, he has accomplished more for his causes - and the nation's - than any other legislator of his generation. Yet, unlike almost all of his colleagues, Kennedy has never blurred his beliefs. He is the tribune of health care for all, of true education reform, of relief for the working poor, of skepticism toward huge military outlays, and of welcome for immigrants. Yet Kennedy's greatest distinction in the Senate has been as a builder of bipartisan coalitions, working with Republican senators on issues ranging from AIDS to health insurance to the minimum wage. ''I admire him so much,'' GOP Senator Orrin Hatch said once, speaking for more than a few on his side of the aisle.

I heard Kennedy's former staff director Nick Littlefield describe this moment as a huge opportunity for Kennedy, and his current staffer Michael Myers makes that concrete by observing that all of the key issues facing the new Bush administration are rooted firmly in turf that belongs, above all, to Kennedy. Democrats will look to him, but ironically, so will the new president if he hopes to realize his oft-stated goal of uniting the nation. I spoke to Kennedy last week, and he observed that ''the principal force working against Bush by resisting coalition-building will be the right wing of his own party.'' And speaking of the Republican leadership itself, Kennedy said, ''These are people who are used to getting their own way.'' President Bush is going to need help.

In our conversation, Kennedy's readiness to cooperate was on display. ''The Cabinet approvals will go through quickly,'' he predicted, then added with an edge, ''unlike the history of Republican delays on our judiciary appointments'' - a reminder that a reinvigorated Democratic liberalism may be met with dogged Republican opposition. But at the very least, the public stands to benefit from sharp debate on, for example, the real meaning of missile defense, the actual situation of the still-uninsured, or the best way forward in education reform - debates that have not occurred for most of a decade.

I asked Kennedy about his personal relationship with the president-elect and was surprised to learn that, though Kennedy knew Bush's grandfather half a century ago, he and George W. met for the first time this fall - at a funeral. ''I went up to him,'' Kennedy told me, ''and when we were introduced, he said, `I've heard of you.''' Kennedy laughed as he reported this. It was easy to imagine the bright expression on Bush's face. That expression, of course, will darken as the full weight of the new office settles on him. And as that happens, George W. Bush will hear of Edward M. Kennedy again.

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