As it has been mentioned by many obituaries and tributes, in a life of great personal turmoil, the U.S. Senate was where Ted Kennedy shone his brightest. Whether working across the aisle on issues of importance or championing the ideas of liberal Americans, Kennedy made his mark through persistent and reliable work in the upper legislative chamber.
Kennedy’s political arc teaches us a number of things about the US system; in part with regard to the personalities of the various branches of power. For a man as influential, well-connected, and generally politically savvy, he was remarkably ineffective at executive, including presidential, politics. Instead, he dominated the congressional end, paving the way for his brother Robert and son Patrick.
The US Senate, with its long terms, small membership, and the strong influence of individual members is the place where politicians who might otherwise be pressed away from power can endure. In a system where power can be rapidly wrenched away because of one wrong sound bite, the Senate remains an institution where one can regroup and re-emerge after a painful electoral loss or scandal. It is a place that rewards methodical contributions and innovative thinking much more than sexy slogans.
The Senate matched Ted Kennedy quite well in all these regards. He was an insitutional person, as the patriarch of the Kennedys and an elder New England statesman. He was a man tarred by scandal, something that kept him from presidential and vice-presidential nominations. He was a lawmaker who was perfectly in line with the politics and culture of his constituents, and therefore never faced a serious challenge. Finally, he made his mark with his reliable mix of strong ideals and ideology, and pragmatic bi-partisan approach. All in all, there was no better place for Ted Kennedy.
Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org