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Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Q & A With Author & Former Senator Kennedy Health Policy Expert David Nexon
Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a G.O.P. Congress
1. Why is your book, Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats
in a G.O.P. Congress, relevant today?
The book tells the story of how Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate, rallied the Democrats to defeat the Gingrich revolution. The Republicans won a stunning election victory in 1964—a victory as stunning and unexpected as Trump’s. They picked up 52 House seats and 7 Senate seats. They controlled both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They campaigned on some of the same issues that propelled Trump to office—a covert appeal to racism and to fear. And they had a radical right-wing agenda that was strikingly similar to one of the guys in power today. They seemed unstoppable, but Ted Kennedy showed how they could be beaten—and they were. And he did more. Not only did he stop the right wing agenda, but he went on to pass major progressive legislation even in that hostile environment. So it’s really a playbook for today’s Democrats and progressives.
2. What does this book tell us about Senator Kennedy?
The book tells what we think is an exciting story—how Kennedy rallied the Democrats to defeat—against all odds—a radical right wing agenda fueled by a devastating Republican electoral victory. Even more astounding, it tells how he went on to pass important progressive legislation even in that hostile environment. Most of all it shows what made Senator Kennedy such a great leader, a great politician, and a great Senator.
Part of understanding what made Senator Kennedy so special involves understanding the way the Senate operates. The mores of the Senate explored in the book are both important and opaque to outsiders. The way the intricate Senate rules shaped the fight over the minimum wage was an untold story until now. The excitement of working for Senator Kennedy, the enthusiasm he generated, and the fast pace and twist and turns of strategy are all part of the story that people outside the Senate’s specialized environment can’t normally see and will enjoy.
One of the unique features of the book is that Nick Littlefield, the lead author, was Senator Kennedy’s chief domestic policy advisor during this period, so he was at almost all the key meetings with Kennedy—in the Democratic caucus, with President Clinton and other top White House Officials, with Republican Senators, with important leaders of outside groups. Nick took shorthand and he was a kind of unique guy in that he could participate in a meeting and also take verbatim notes, so readers can experience what it was actually like to be in the room in those key meetings.
3. How did Kennedy and the Democrats defeat the Republican agenda?
The basic recipe to defeat the right-wing agenda was to use every legislative tool available to fight it, to unify the Democrats in opposition, and, most important, to educate the public about what the Republicans really intended. Once the public understood it, they didn’t like it.
They didn’t think they’d voted for big tax cuts for the wealthy, or to cut and privatize Medicare, or to take health care away from low income people, including children and the elderly and disabled, or to slash educational opportunity, or to eviscerate environmental protections, or undermine OSHA, or to deregulate Wall Street or to tip the scales of justice against workers and for big business.
It’s the same thing with Trump and the Congressional Republicans. There are so many people who are just realizing that when they voted for Trump and the Congressional Republicans they were licensing them to take away their health care—but there is so much more that the Republicans and Trump want to do that the public won’t support—if only they understand it.
Ultimately, the Gingrich Republican program couldn’t be sustained because it had become so unpopular. But that didn’t come easily: it took a sustained campaign, a unified message, daily activities, and influencing the press to cover the issues. There was hardly a day that went by that we didn’t have a forum, a rally, a floor debate or amendment, a new study, or something going on to try to catch the public’s attention. Of course, today there are a lot more methods of communication available than there were then. But the key ingredient is that Democrats be unrelenting in telling the truth about what the Republicans want to do to the American people.
4. How did Kennedy pass progressive legislation in that climate?
Kennedy was a unique combination of idealism and pragmatism. The idealistic side meant he was always going to fight for progressive values, for those who were left out and left behind, for ordinary hard-working Americans.
The pragmatic side said that he was willing to compromise if needed to move the ball forward. In that partisan and gridlocked area he was able to pass the minimum wage, the Kassebaum Kennedy insurance reform, and the child health insurance program.
Kennedy perfected a core approach to success on every big issue: what he called the “inside and outside game.” The inside game meant mastering the issue, unifying the Democrats, finding an important Republican partner, and using his deep understanding of the rules and chemistry of the Senate; the outside game meant engaging the relevant interest groups, effectively engaging the news media, and ultimately mobilizing the public.
Finding a Republican partner was usually a critical ingredient. It’s very hard to pass anything through Congress—especially if you are in the minority—unless you start it out with some bipartisan support. That usually requires compromise—not necessarily on the goals but on the means and whether you get the whole loaf or half a loaf.
5. You devote a chapter of the book to the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which Kennedy and Orrin Hatch teamed up on. How did that happen?
A. That was one of Kennedy’s great achievements—one no one else thought was possible in that environment. Today, it provides quality, affordable insurance for eight million children.
Kennedy decided that since universal health care, which was the great cause of his life, wasn’t practical in the Republican Congress, he was going to try to expand coverage for children to get as close to universal coverage for them as he could.
The first step was to find a Republican partner. He approached a number of Republicans—ten in all—that he thought might be interested, but the only one who showed much interest was Orin Hatch, who happened to be one of his great friends in the Senate.
There was an interesting interaction between Hatch and his staff that we found out about later that said a lot about Hatch. Hatch told his staff that Kennedy had approached him about doing something for children’s health insurance. Virtually all the staff advised him against it. They said doing something with Kennedy wouldn’t be popular in Utah. They said that the Republican leadership would be furious with him. Hatch said, “You don’t know what it was like to grow up as a poor kid. Help me to do it, but help me to do it right.”—meaning it couldn’t be what he called a Kennedy left-wing bill--an individual entitlement with open-ended funding that was run by the Federal government.
So we went through a long process of negotiation—exchanges of letters, negotiations at the staff level—meetings between the two Senators. Finally, we were getting close, but we still hadn’t agreed on the funding level or how big the tobacco tax would be that would be used to finance the program. So there was a climactic meeting between in Senator Hatch’s office.
A little bit of background: Hatch loved music and wrote songs as an avocation. Nick Littlefield, after he graduated from college, had a brief career as a singer/actor in Broadway musicals and had a beautiful voice. So Kennedy had the idea that if Nick sang one of Hatch’s songs to Hatch it might break the ice.
So at the meeting, Kennedy sprang his surprise. Nick sang Hatch’s song, “Freedom’s Light” with as much fervor as if he were back on Broadway and gave it everything he had. At the end of the song, there was silence. Then Hatch smiled. His only words were, “Nice move, Teddy.” And we got the deal.
With support from Kennedy and Hatch, the children’s advocacy groups, the anti-tobacco advocacy groups, and the Clinton Administration, we were able to force votes on the bill on the Senate floor and ultimately the political pressure was so great that it was included in the Balanced Budget deal that Clinton and Gingrich negotiated.
6. Kennedy was able to pass bipartisan legislation with lots of Republican Senators, not just Hatch as partners. Surely he wasn’t close friends with all of them. How did that happen?
Kennedy made a point of cultivating personal relationships with every Senator he could. He was a naturally gregarious, charming guy who really liked people, and he knew how important personal relationships were. Most of the Republican Senators hardly agreed with anything Kennedy stood for, but almost all of them liked him on a personal level, and they knew he was a hard worker who was true to his word.
These personal relationships didn’t mean that anyone would sign on to something they didn’t agree with. But it did mean they were open to listening if there was something Kennedy wanted to do where they had some sympathy for the goal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Senator who had less in common with Kennedy than Strom Thurmond, but Kennedy found out that Thurmond had a daughter who suffered from type 1 diabetes. So Kennedy approached Thurmond about working together to lift the ban on federal funding of fetal tissue research, which was thought to offer some promise for finding a cure for type 1 diabetes. The two of them teamed up, and they were able to pass the bill by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
That’s especially ironic today, as the Republicans are trying to use Planned Parenthood’s perfectly legal and proper supplying of fetal tissue for scientific research as a basis for trying to defund Planned Parenthood.
7. Is that type of cooperation possible today?
There’s no question that the environment is a difficult one. But there are people of good will on both sides of the aisle. What today’s Senators need to do is follow Senator Kennedy’s example—cultivate personal relationships, look for issues where you share a common goal, be willing to compromise without giving up core values, understand how to work the legislative process and reach out to the public. I don’t think there is anyone who will ever equal Senator Kennedy, but any Senator can use the same approach that worked so well for him. And, even in this environment, we have seen some of this. There is bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, for example.
8. One of the central legislative struggles you describe in the book was the successful effort to pass a minimum wage increase. It’s hard for me to imagine that happening in today’s Congress. How did Kennedy do it?
It was hard for anyone except Kennedy to imagine it happening in the Gingrich Congress—but it did.
This was one of the few cases where a successful, major piece of legislation didn’t start out as bipartisan. Kennedy’s first goal was to unify the Democrats. That was hard, because a lot of Democrats were shell-shocked by the election and they thought the minimum wage as “old politics,” that the voters didn’t want. A key moment came in early January, when the Democratic leadership from the House and Senate met to discuss the Democratic agenda. Kennedy was invited to the part of the meeting where the minimum wage was discussed. Perhaps I can read a short excerpt from the book: “Members crowded around a large conference table; on one side sat Senator Daschle [the Senate Democratic Leader] and on the other Congressman Gephardt [the House Leader]. As Kennedy entered and was shown to a seat at the end of the table, a senator was explaining that he didn’t think it was a good idea for Democrats to be for an increase in the minimum wage at this time because, in view of the elections, it sent the wrong signal. It was ‘old’ politics. I would only help the poor. It had no chance of success . . .
“Kennedy exploded. ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing. If there is one cause Democrats should stand for it is improving the wages of working people. If we are not going to fight for the wages of working people, who will fight for them? When the economy is thriving, and corporate profits are at an all-time high, and CEO salaries are hundreds of times what the average worker’s is, who says we can’t afford to increase the minimum wage by 50 cents an hour. It is unacceptable in America for anyone to work forty hours a week, fifty weeks a year, and still not be able to lift his family out of poverty…. “ He was in full red-faced volume in this small room, as if he were addressing a crowd on ten thousand on the steps of the Capitol.
‘I tell you if we fight on this issue we’ll win it, and we’ll win it in a Republican Congress. If we don’t, we don’t deserve to call ourselves Democrats.’
“When he finished, there was a long silence, as if he had sucked all the air out of the room. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was the first to speak up: ‘Well, I guess we now understand how Ted feels about this.”
The whole tenor of the discussion shifted—from whether to support an increase to how big it should be. Kennedy was able to work out a compromise on that issue. And then the battle shifted to the Senate floor. There was a long series of dramatic parliamentary maneuvers over the course of year and a half where Kennedy was able to force votes on the issue. As the public pressure built, each time more Republicans broke ranks until there were finally enough votes to pass it.
9. There are a lot of dramatic and sometimes quite inside stories in this book that people wouldn’t normally know about. What are some of them?
I already mentioned how Kennedy’s asking Nick to sing to Orrin Hatch helped to seal the deal on the CHIP bill. We tried the same tactic on a big anti-tobacco program—but this time it didn’t work. There was the epic floor fight over the minimum wage that ultimately forced Bob Dole out of the Senate and helped doom his Presidential campaign, the canny use of the press to expose the secret holds that were keeping insurance reform from reaching the Senate floor, the constant maneuvering to try to assure that the President would take a strong line against the Republican agenda, Strom Thurmond’s reenactment for a roomful of Senators of a pantomime of his morning exercise routine, complete with his epic struggles to lift imaginary weights, the daredevil race to Arlington National Cemetery to secure a bagful of earth from the John and Robert Kennedy gravesite as the proper symbolic gift for the Rabin funeral and get it to Air Force One before it took off, Kennedy’s gestures of kindness and consideration for his staff, and many more.
10. I’m sure Senator Kennedy would be appalled at the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I was surprised to learn at how involved he was in its passage, even though he was quite ill during the time it was considered in Congress and died before it ultimately passed.
Yes, that’s one of the interesting stories we include in the book that I think very few people are aware of.
Of course, universal health care was one of the great causes of Senator Kennedy’s life, and even as his illness progressed, he exerted a significant impact on the strategies that lead to the passage of Obamacare. At a key White House meeting where the President’s advisors almost unanimously urged him to abandon the effort, the President said, “We need to do this for Ted.” It was Kennedy who convinced Democrats of the importance of keeping the reconciliation path open—a decision that was ultimately crucial to the success of the bill. It was Kennedy who set up a strategy of engaging the key interest groups early and often to avoid knee-jerk opposition that could have sunk the bill. It was Kennedy who emphasized the importance of avoiding the rivalries between committees that had done so much to hamper the Clinton effort. And in the President’s inspiring speech to Congress calling for the passage of universal health care, it was Kennedy’s posthumous letter to him that he quoted and it was Kennedy’s “largeness of spirit” that he invoked.
11. You worked for Kennedy for 22 years. What was he like to work for?
He was terrific, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to have worked with him for so long. Kennedy gave you the opportunity to be working for something larger than yourself. You always felt that you were working for a man whose great goal was to make the lives of the American people better—particularly those Americans who needed help the most. Because he was so immensely skilled as a legislator and a leader, you knew that the things that you did for him weren’t just aspirational; they could become a reality. And as we try to portray in the book, the work was endlessly fascinating and exciting.
And on a personal level, Kennedy was great to work for. He was considerate. If you were sick or someone in your family was in trouble, he would always call to express his concern. If you did something for him, he would thank you. If there was a press story that highlighted your efforts, he would have it framed and send it to you with a note. Pens used by the President in signing ceremonies for important bills are given to members of Congress who were key to the legislations’ passage. They are greatly prized, but Kennedy always gave the ones he received to the staff member who had done the most to work on the bill—just a terrific human being.
Please note, the author recently hired the book publicity firm that I work for.
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs