"It’s possible he plans to resign the seat he has held since January 1963 as things progress," Lehigh writes. "Or perhaps he feels the end is drawing near. Still, this much is clear. In the twilight of his life, the senior senator is thinking of the best interest of the state he loves."
There is something undeniably poignant about the mere fact of this letter, ostensibly penned by a man staring down the barrel of his own mortality at extremely close range. Whatever one thinks of Senator Kennedy, a lot of the vitriol hurled his way today in the blogosphere and elsewhere is ugly and unseemly to say the least.
Still, we ought to be clear on the motivation here before buying into the notion of changing a law most recently changed just a half decade ago, in a nakedly-political move by the Democratic Legislature to deprive Republican Governor Mitt Romney of the ability to appoint a successor to Senator Kerry, had Kerry won the Presidency in 2004. This has little to do with "the best interest of the state [Kennedy] loves," and everything to do with Washington, DC power politics.
The fact that the letter appears to have been drafted in the first week of July but remained undelivered until this week is significant. It has been at the ready, to be deployed in a very specific circumstance that has now come to pass: the possibility that Kennedy's cherished health care reform bill will require a party-line-slam-through for passage, combined with the probability that Kennedy will not be around to see the vote - or in any event will not be able to make it to DC to participate. Kennedy's staff insists that delivery of the letter does not mean the end is imminent for the Senator; the fact that he was unable to attend his sister's funeral last week, though, probably counts for more than staff reassurances.
In any event, what concerns Senator Kennedy is not that Massachusetts might be deprived of its full voice in the Senate for a few months in the run-up to a special election. That bothered him not at all in 2003-04 when Senator Kerry missed the vast majority of votes as he campaigned for president. Kennedy is worried that health care reform might fail with 59 Democratic votes - one shy of the 60 vote supermajority required to overcome a Republican fillibuster, if every single Senator hews to the party line.
Now think about that. Kennedy's concern is only relevant if a bill that will fundamentally re-shape a huge part of the American economy comes down to a party-line vote. Is that how legislation with such a massive impact should be passed?
Much of the knee-jerk reaction from Republicans this morning to news of the Kennedy letter revealed a lack of full understanding of just what it is the Senator is proposing. Rhetoric about 'stealing the people's right to vote' or vesting sole authority to appoint Kennedy's successor in one person misses the point. Kennedy's proposal, if adopted, would only allow the Governor to appoint a place-holder - a figurehead Senator, as it were - to serve for the few months between creation of the vacancy and a special election. The people would still get to vote. Further, Kennedy shrewdly anticipated the argument that appointment power vests in the appointee the advantage of incumbency. He urged Patrick to obtain from any potential appointee a commitment not to run for the seat in the special election.
This move is not about depriving Massachusetts voters of the right to elect their next Senator. It is about preserving the Democrats' supermajority in Washington, and maintaining their ability to slam an increasingly unpopular health care socialization bill through the Senate.
We Rs need to keep our eye on the ball.