The news that Sen. Ted Kennedy has an inoperable malignant glioma in the left parietal sector of his brain is a major development in American politics. We can, and of course do, hope and pray that modern medicine can solve the problem, but the prognosis is, to put it mildly, not good.
The consequences for our political life are therefore going to be profound. Kennedy has served in the Senate for 46 years -- longer than anyone but Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who has served there for half a century. Given the Senate's rules, which favor seniority, that fact alone would make Kennedy one of the most powerful men in Washington -- and even more so, of course, in times like these, when the Democrats control the Senate. But Kennedy has always been far more than just another senator, however senior. He was the brother of a president, and another served beside him in the Senate for several years. Both, tragically, were assassinated.
But Kennedy has soldiered on, and in the process has wielded enormous influence. He has chaired numerous committees and subcommittees, and his name is on many hugely important pieces of legislation. In 1980, he tried briefly to seize the Democratic presidential nomination from Jimmy Carter (who was seeking a second term) and failed. But Kennedy then simply turned his attention fully to the Senate and has served there ever since.
In the course of that service, it is probably not too much to say that he has become the Senate's, and probably America's, leading liberal. Liberalism hasn't done terribly well in American politics in the past half-century, but the fact that it has survived at all is in some substantial measure owing to the efforts of this man. And a few weeks ago he endorsed the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, signaling that the liberal blessing (if that is what it is) has officially descended on Obama as its tiger in 2008.
If and when Kennedy leaves the Senate, Massachusetts will no doubt pick someone just as liberal as he to carry on the cause. But it cannot possibly replace him in terms of his influence and leadership, and the Democratic Party in the Senate will inevitably suffer badly from his loss. Other Democratic senators will try to pick up his mantle and, slowly, the huge gap left by his departure will be healed. But the deference to his judgment, and the acquiescence in his guidance, will be missing, and will be hard to replace.
The U.S. Senate is a delicate organism, sensitive to the inclinations of its members, and especially of its senior members. The announcement of Kennedy's illness has already affected it in subtle ways and will, in the months to come, predictably affect it in many more. Almost certainly, the liberal impulse there will diminish temporarily, before finding a new leader.
In the long run, of course, the Senate, and even its liberals, will survive the loss of Ted Kennedy. What his departure will mean for the strength and resilience of the liberal movement as a whole, however, is another matter.