Kennedys Bush game

It was a few days before the November election, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was determined to prevent the White House from falling into Republican hands. So he stormed onto the Senate floor to heap one last round of abuse on a Republican nominee whose ideology clearly appalled the liberal war horse.

“The Bush record in Texas is one of indifference and ineptitude–of putting powerful interests ahead of ordinary families,” Kennedy thundered. “His proposals are deeply flawed. . . . The Bush record in the campaign is one of consistent deception and distortion. The Bush proposals are at best inadequate and at worst harmful.” And so on.

And that was before the bitterness of the Florida recount. Who knew what Kennedy might say once Bush was sworn in. Would he refuse to address Bush as “Mr. President”? Boycott the State of the Union? Conduct a four-year filibuster?

Certainly, no one predicted the fast friendship that seems to have developed between Kennedy and the new president. Within a week of Bush’s inauguration, Kennedy visited the White House to talk about education policy, a longtime obsession. Emerging from the meeting, Kennedy declared the new president a good man, and amazed reporters by praising Bush’s education proposals. “There are some areas of difference, but the overwhelming areas of agreement and of support are very, very powerful,” Kennedy announced.

Washington was abuzz. After all, several other prominent liberals had ridiculed Bush’s education plan. Some, including Kennedy’s own son Patrick, a Rhode Island congressman, still refused to acknowledge Bush’s legitimacy. “Normally, the way you make news is by disagreeing with the president,” a Kennedy aide joked. “This time he did it by agreeing.”

That was just the beginning. Kennedy appeared with Bush at elementary schools to promote the president’s education reform plan. And he accepted an invitation to visit the White House for a screening of the JFK-centric movie Thirteen Days. (The film’s exaggerated Boston accents, by the way, didn’t amuse Kennedy. “Do we really talk that way?” he asked a CNN interviewer.) “He’s personable, he’s intelligent, he’s sort of feisty, he’s engaged,” Kennedy said of Bush in the Boston Herald, which declared the Kennedy-Dubya pairing “Washington’s most prominent political odd couple.”

What’s with all this chumminess? Kennedy says it’s all pretty simple. Working with Bush on his education and health care priorities, is “good politics and good policy,” he says. “If we’re able to get things done, then that’s the system working.”

Kennedy, of course, has a long and well-documented history of cooperating with his ideological rivals. Particularly since the Republicans took Congress in 1994, Kennedy has been determined not to spend his days perched atop a soapbox, ignored like some of his liberal colleagues. Instead, he has struck a rare balance between ideological crusader and legislative mechanic.

In the 1990s, Kennedy famously teamed up with Republican friends like Nancy Kassebaum and Orrin Hatch to pass major legislation reforming and extending health care coverage. He even joined with Lauch Faircloth, a Clinton-bashing North Carolina archconservative, to pass a bill to punish church burnings harshly. The Kennedy-Faircloth combination was so unlikely, a Kennedy aide told Adam Clymer, author of a recent Kennedy biography, that senators reacted to the bill by saying, “If Kennedy and Faircloth agree on this, I don’t even have to read it.”

Yet it would be a mistake to read too much into the early courtship between Kennedy and Bush. Rather than trying to create a new climate of bipartisanship in Washington, Kennedy may simply be trying to preserve his relevance.

For most of last year Kennedy dueled with a group of centrist Democrats over education reform legislation. The centrists, led by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, sought to consolidate federal education funding and give states more leeway over how they use school dollars. Kennedy stubbornly resisted any effort to see the cherished pet programs he has cultivated over the years wiped away.

Bush, as you might expect, is much closer to the Democratic centrists than he is to the liberal Kennedy on education–which is what made Kennedy’s initial enthusiasm that day at the White House so surprising. Kennedy may have seen the writing on the wall: The new president was going to cut a deal with the New Democrats, and Kennedy would be dealt out. Thus, some saw the senator’s trip to the White House as an effort to cut himself into the action.

Staying in the action could be tougher for Kennedy. In recent years his extremely close ties to the Clinton White House guaranteed him massive clout on Capitol Hill. Especially as the new Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, found his footing, Clinton relied heavily on Kennedy as his point man in the Senate. Ultimately, Kennedy was credited for much of the strategy Clinton employed to hold firm against the Republican Congress.

But Clinton is gone, and Kennedy’s place in the new Congress is uncertain. His own party continues to move to the right, as centrists like Lieberman, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Lousiana’s John Breaux exercise ever more power. Kennedy admits, for instance, that the $900 billion tax cut plan Democrats have presented as an alternative to the Bush plan is bigger than he would have liked. And when Kennedy proposed an unprecedented filibuster of John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general, his colleagues let it be known they would not be standing with him.

And yet his name is still Kennedy, which counts for a lot. No other senator–with the possible exception of newcomer Hillary Clinton–enjoys the same kind of national constituency. That makes him an attractive friend for Bush, who is eager to be seen as a bipartisan conciliator. Kennedy, meanwhile, wants to be sure he doesn’t get cut out of the political loop, relegated to life as a mere rhetorician.

In Washington, that’s how strange political bedfellows get made. “I have this feeling that Kennedy and Bush both think they’re playing the other guy,” says one Democratic education policy expert. “Bush thinks he can charm Kennedy, and at the end of the day he’ll get everything he wants. Kennedy might think that, well, he’s Ted Kennedy and Bush has to pay homage to him.”

Bipartisanship, after all, is a tricky thing. Politics tends to be a zero-sum game. The benefits of short-term cooperation must be weighed against the long-term effects of strengthening your opponent’s political hand. Some liberals, hoping that Bush would never fully shake the taint of the Florida recount, might have preferred that Kennedy not paid that White House courtesy call at all. Help the Republicans today on education, and they may be stronger on tax cuts tomorrow. Is it worth it?

“Democrats have to be for things,” says Kennedy. We can never win by being against everything.”

Kennedy says it is. He argues that as long as it’s clear to the public which party is the driving force behind good legislation, there’s no danger of being co-opted. “We’ve got to elevate these issues so people understand who’s leading on them,” Kennedy says. In a capital where Republicans call the shots, he adds, “Democrats have to be for things. We can never win by being against everything.”

Kennedy has been careful to make it clear what he’s for: More funding for education‹specifically for teacher salaries and inner-city schools. A hike in the minimum wage. Further expansions of health-care coverage. And a long-stalled HMO Patients’ Bill of Rights–another area where Kennedy thinks he and Bush might get along. “There isn’t a big gulf,” Kennedy says. “I think he’d like to have it passed.”

But for the most part, Bush’s agenda consists of things Kennedy will be against. Expect the Ashcroft treatment, times two, for any demonstrably conservative Supreme Court nominees Bush might serve up–a point Kennedy makes sure to tack on to his talk of cooperation. “I do think we have a very important responsibility, particularly in the area of the Supreme Court,” Kennedy says. “We have to make sure that we’re going to have nominees who are going to draw the widest possible support. . . . If there’s a selection on the basis of ideology, that will be a legitimate struggle.”

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And as Bush’s budget moves through Congress, Kennedy will find it hard to be cordial about the president’s trillion-plus dollar tax cut‹which will surely starve many of Kennedy’s favorite federal programs‹and Bush’s spending reductions in cherished departments like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department. Indeed, when Bush introduced his budget in February, Kennedy complained that it “leaves the needs and concerns of middle America behind,” a line that seemed to echo Kennedy’s harsh words from the presidential campaign.

If the Kennedy-Bush friendship seems too good to be true, it may be because it is.

CommonWealth Washington correspondent Michael Crowley is an associate editor at The New Republic.