The Gang-of-Six vs Ted Kennedy: Old School Politics in a New Era

As the “Gang of Six” is likely soon to exit the stage and make way for new players in the next scene of the Health Care saga, it’s worth taking a moment to look back and think about why their effort to create a bipartisan consensus met with such little success.

Why was it so hard for them to produce an agreement that just the 6 of them could sign, never mind producing one that a majority of their colleagues could join?  And why were their efforts met with such indifference from so many other Senators?  Thinking about these questions tells us a lot about the style of contemporary congressional politics and helps us see how much that style has changed over the years.

Since health care is such a sensitive issue, one might wonder if electoral pressure kept these six from moving forward.

Doesn’t seem likely —let’s take a look at the Gang Members, one at a time:

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)  just won reelection in 2008, with about 73% of the vote, and he’s not up for reelection until 2014.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is up for reelection next year, but Iowans have been electing him to office since 1959.  He came to the Senate in 1980, and since 1986 he’s never received less than 66% of the vote.  Iowa has 99 counties, and in his last three elections he’s won every one of them.  While there are rumors he might retire, he looks untouchable should he run.

Sen.  Mike Enzi (R-WY) has been in the Senate since 1996. He won in 2008 with 76% of the vote, and isn’t up for reelection until 2014.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) was elected to the Senate in 1994, won her last election with 74% of the vote, has never received less than 60%, and isn’t up for reelection until 2012.  The Senator has won more federal elections in Maine than anyone since WWII.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has won every Senate race since 1982, won his last two races with 62% and 71% of the vote, and isn’t up again until 2012.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) has represented the Peace Garden State in Congress since 1963, has been in the Senate since 1986, won his last election with 71% of the vote and isn’t up again until 2012.  Time named him one of the country’s best Senators in 2006, and the Bismark Tribune called him “the most influential Senator North Dakota has ever produced”.

So no, reelection worries can’t seem to explain the Gang’s lack of success — they have the political room Senators need to take some tough and even risky policy stands.

OK, then maybe these are the sorts of politicians that colleagues can’t trust?

You know,  rabid partisans or the sort who don’t do their homework and so don’t know policy details?

Again, not likely:

Let’s take a look at the Gang’s Democratic members:

They hail from States that have, over the last 40 years, produced reliably Republican majorities at the presidential level.

Since 1968 there have been 11 presidential elections.  North Dakota has gone for the Republican candidate in all of them.  Montana is right behind their Great Plains neighbor, going Republican 10-out-of-11 times (only exception, 1992).  New Mexico has supported the Republican candidate in 7 of those elections, and supported George Bush in 2004.

In The National Journal’s 2006 ideological ranking of Senators, only 5 Democrats were more conservative than Baucus and Conrad.  And 4-out-of those 5 came from states from the deep South.   Bingaman is ranked as the chamber’s 13th most liberal member — which should have helped him win the ear of the party’s more liberal wing.

Senators Baucus, Bingaman and Conrad are not Chablis-sipping, coastal liberals.  The fact that they win big majorities in “red” states suggests they do a good job representing the issues and the values that move many otherwise Republican-voting citizens.

Moreover, they aren’t policy lightweights.  Conrad has been recognized as one of the “10 most economically literate Members of Congress”, is a “deficit hawk” who has at times tangled with his own party over budget issues, and in deference to his economic expertise has been nicknamed “the statistician” by Time.  Bingaman also has a record of bipartisanship, especially on environmental issues.

There was a time when these hardworking, ideological moderates would have been just the sort of Democrats that Republican Senators would’ve been able to connect with.

OK, how about the Gang’s Republican members?

Enzi is the chamber’s 5th most conservative member in that National Journal ranking.  Grassley is the 24th most conservative Senator.  You might think that they have the ideological credentials to win the confidence of most of their Republican colleagues.  But might they, especially Enzi, scare off Democrats?

Once again, they both have a record of reaching across the aisle on a regular basis.

Enzi often cites what he calls “the 80/20 rule”, which means that most people agree on about 80% of issues, and if they can center on those, they can accomplish a lot.  (I wonder if the President was trying to woo him when he cited that same rule in his Joint address the other night?).

Snowe is the most liberal Republican Senator in the National Journal ranking (and the chamber’s 45th-most liberal Senator).  While that might offend some of her Republican colleagues, you might think that she could win the ear of Democrats searching for a bipartisan bill.

And, being a woman from New England, you might think that some Republicans would welcome the chance to rally behind her to counter the image that their party is becoming the exclusive preserve of southern males.

So here’s the real kicker: You’d be hard put to come up with another group of six Senators that, taken together, are as ideologically centrist, hard working and respected as this Gang.

Yet who do we hear might have been able to pull off a bipartisan health care deal had he been healthy?  Why, none other than Ted Kennedy.


The very familiarity of this claim might obscure how, on the surface at least, odd it is — how counter-intuitive.

I mean, Ted Kennedy, bipartisan deal maker?

The Lion of the Left?

He Who Borked Bork?

The third most liberal Senator?

He from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts?

How could it possibly be that this favorite target of the Right could be a bipartisan dealmaker?

Here’s how:

First, he genuinely worked behind the scenes to reach such agreements on a host of issues over the last decade or so.  He reached across the aisle to help pass President Bush’s No Child Left Behind bill, for instance, and worked with Democrats and Republicans in an effort to put together a bipartisan immigration bill in 2006 and 2007.

Yet the Gang of Six has been involved in similar efforts too.  Why did he succeed where they failed?

Maybe he had attributes they lack?

Money and media power come to mind.

The Center For Responsive Politics lists the average net worth of all 100 Senators for 2007.

Senator Kennedy was the 3rd most personally wealthy Senator that year.

Where did our Gang rank?

Senator Snowe was its richest member, coming in at #9 over all.

Here’s where the rest ranked:

Bingaman, 18th

Grassley, 37th

Conrad, 45th

Enzi, 62nd

Baucus, 96th

Why might money matter?  Because when you ask colleagues to sign on to a bipartisan effort, especially one that requires some real political risk, it’s nice to be able to assure them that you are prepared to help them politically.

That you’ve got their back.  That if they start to take heat for their vote, you’ll donate to their campaign.   In addition to his personal wealth, Kennedy’s ability to raise money from other sources was remarkable and not one of the Gang’s Members comes close to his fundraising prowess.

Nor could they match his ability to command the attention of the national media.  (Indeed, Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America says that Senator Bingaman keeps such a low profile that some reporters who cover Capital Hill don’t recognize him!).

There was a time — say, from the end of WWII till the early-to-mid 1980s — when electorally safe, ideologically moderate and likeable Senators were able to talk to each other behind closed doors and reach bipartisan consensus on difficult issues.

Those days seem to be gone.

Today, to be effective inside the Senate, you seem to need to combine those old internal strategies with the ability to be effective outside of the chamber.

Raising money and attracting media attention gives Senators like Ted Kennedy the leverage to bring pressure to bear on the Congress’s internal procedures, and to produce bipartisan results.

So, hat’s off to the Gang of Six — let’s give them a hand for their arduous efforts as they exit — there’s something dignified in their old-style effort to talk quietly and seriously about contentious and complex issues.

But their’s was the bipartisanship of a bygone day.



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