Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Was Ted Kennedy an advertisment for Term Limits?

America was saddened yesterday by the death of Edward Kennedy - the last surviving Kennedy brother and nine-term senator for Massachusetts.

A lot of debate's been raging about the man's life, legacy and just where his passing leaves the Obama administration and their battle to pass Health Care reform legislation.

Kennedy was one of Obama's biggest allies in the battle and his death leaves the Democrats short of the filibuster-breaking sixty seats they need in the Senate.

But to me, Ted Kennedy's departure highlights a different question entirely. He first entered the Senate in 1962 - to replace his brother when JFK became President. His career spanned over 45 years. Is that too long?

Career Kennedy

At 77, Kennedy was twelve years older than the normal retirement age in America.

There was certainly nothing lacking in his mental abilities - he remained one of the sharpest and most capable politicians in the Senate - but was it right that he'd spent almost half his life in political office?

The term 'career politician' is normally a derogatory one. It's arguable that the longer a politician stays in office, the less and less understanding they are of the 'real' world and the constituency they represent. Ted Kennedy was perhaps the best example of a man in that sort of position, being both the second most senior Senator and part of 'American royalty.'

In fact, Kennedy's progressive attitude and modern outlook was perhaps astonishing given his privileged upbringing and the decades spent in Washington. There are other 'career politicians' in the Senate who resemble dinosaurs compared to Kennedy.

How a Byrd evolved into a Dinosaur

Senator Robert Byrd of Virginia is a prime example. At 92, he's the oldest senator in office and has been a senator since 1959. His political career has witnessed some of the most historic events in recent American history - unfortunately, Bryd's been on the wrong side of most of them.

For example, in 1942 he was unanimously election 'Exalted Cyclops' of his local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Two years later, he wrote to Mississippi Sensator Theodore Bilbo boasting:
"I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side... Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."
After being elected to the position of Senator in 1959, Robert Byrd set about on a campaign to support segregation and oppose Civil Rights. In 1964, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act and similarly opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - an utterly shameful legacy.

Out of political expediency, Byrd tempered his segregationist views (he actually supported the Civil Rights Act of 1968.) But it's still difficult to believe that a current Senator - and third in line to the Presidency, after Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi - once vehemently opposed granting basic civil and human rights to African Americans.

The Dingell Dynasty

John David Dingell, Jr. is another example of a career politician. Since 1955, he's been representing the same district in Michigan - the longest serving representative and third longest serving congressman in history. Somewhat more astonishingly, he took the position from his father - meaning that a Dingell has represented that district for over 75 years!

26 successful elections - generally standing against no major opponent - has seen this congressman witness the Civil Rights movement, the moon landing, the fall of communism and the election of the first African American president while in office.

Just like Senator Byrd, his age and background have led to some deeply questionable decisions (like voting against the desegregation of schools) but in other ways he's remarkably progressive. Dingell puts forward a national health insurance bill at the start of every session of congress (as did his father.)

In both cases, though, you have to ask whether their constituents are being best served by politicians who've effectively had no other job.

Lautenberg, long-term

My personal punching bag is New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who has represented my district (on and off) since 1982.

He won that election by attacking his Republican opponent, Millicent Fenwick, on the grounds of her advancing age. Currently he's 85 years old - far older than Fenwick was when she lost her seat.

I'm not being 'ageist' in any way - some of the most capable people I know are in their 'third age.' I'm just arguing that politicians who sit implacably in office for decades might not necessarily be the best choice to represent their constituents.

The Brighter the Flame, the Faster it Burns

Politics - especially American politics - has always energized me because of the ideas and forceful personalities it attracts. Just consider last year's election - between an inexperienced first-term Senator from Illinois and a Vice Presidential candidate from Alaska (who appeared on the political scene with the force and dynamism of a timber wolf.)

I honestly believe that term limits should be considered, for both senators and congressmen. It seems to me that limiting the longevity of a political career would be a powerful inducement for people to stand on the basis of individual issues rather than longevity - and force candidates to come from accomplished and varied backgrounds - instead of simply being a 'born politician.'

One of the problems of British politics has been the emergence of 'career politicians.' They're in it for the financial and social benefits - not to change the system or advance any particular cause.

In some ways, America has more extreme examples of federal fossils embedded in the electoral system. Isn't it time we start asking ourselves whether we need 9-term senators and 26-term congressmen? Or is the cure for America's ills to be found by injecting fresh new blood into the political system?


Tom said...

Interestingly enough, the 5 oldest senators are Democrats. So are the 4 youngest.

I doubt that means much.

Now for something completely different... Roland, check out this interview with MEP Daniel Hannan.

Susanne said...

Young blood, young blood!

I think term limits would be good.