November 12, 2015
Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Congress
by Nick Littlefield and David Nexon
The just-published Lion of the Senate offers an insider’s view of several remarkable years when Senator Edward Kennedy fought to preserve the Democratic mission against Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and a Republican majority in both houses. He not only prevailed; he was able to pass important progressive legislation even in that highly partisan, bitterly divided Congress. That story has special resonance today as a resurgent Republican right once again controls Congress and as the policy gridlock seems hopeless.
Nick and I were both senior policy advisors to the Senator during the period the book covers—roughly1995-1997. Nick was Senator Kennedy’s staff director on the Labor and Human Resources Committee (now the HELP Committee) and I was head of the senator’s health policy staff. Lion of the Senate is the story of Kennedy at the height of his powers waging the fight of his life against then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the conservative movement he led. The 1995-1996 Republican House and Senate with Bill Clinton in the White House mirror the fraught circumstances on Capitol Hill today, as President Obama and the Democrats in Congress face an equally determined Republican majority seeking to enact essentially the same agenda that Kennedy defeated in the 1995-1996. In a striking parallel, today’s Republicans, like those of the Gingrich era, have used the threat of a government shutdown and even loan default to achieve their goals. What the Senator accomplished and how he did it is both an exciting narrative and a blueprint for today’s Democrats.
In addition to its contemporary relevance, The Lion of the Senate is, I think, a book that many in the ACS community will enjoy because of their interest in politics and their long alliance with Senator Kennedy on so many issues. Told from Nick’s point of view, it is a close-up account of how Kennedy rallied the Democrats to resist and ultimately defeat the Gingrich agenda and broke through the partisan gridlock to pass a minimum wage increase, important health insurance regulatory reform, and the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The book reveals why Kennedy was such a towering figure as a politician and a legislator, what it was like to be a Senate staffer working for him, and provides a vivid picture of how the Senate operates.
While Nick and I feel that there is no politician who will ever again offer the same incredible combination of charisma, commitment and political skill that Senator Kennedy embodied, we believe that today’s progressives can profit by understanding and applying the methods that he used to achieve success. Certainly, the many challenges the country faces today require both a determined resistance to a conservative agenda that would take us backward and an ability to reach across the aisle to actually enact solutions. We hope The Lion of the Senate contributes to progressives’ understanding of how to reach those goals.