Who Is Heir to Kennedy's Liberal Legacy?

FILE - In this Aug. 12, 1980 file photo, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy responds to the applause at the presidential Democratic National Convention in New York City. After being defeated in his bid for the party's presidential nomination, Kennedy calls for party unity in the upcoming presidential election. (AP Photo, File) AP Photo

In the halls of liberalism, it's hard to imagine anyone filling such a void.

Sen. Edward Kennedy was the thundering partisan, the unapologetic liberal leader, the master legislative dealmaker and tactician. He was also flawed, haunted by tragedy, yet a portrait in charm and Irish bonhomie.

In time, there will be many pretenders to his legacy.

Scanning the political landscape, there are special politicians, remarkable in their own right, who can lead the Democratic Party. But none embodies the totality of what Kennedy brought to the floor of the Senate, to the campaign trail, to the negotiating table.

CBSNews.com Special Report: Ted Kennedy

To be sure, President Barack Obama was virtually anointed by Kennedy as the new generation's recipient of the Kennedy family's political mantle. And Obama has benefited immensely from comparisons of his style to the youthful vigor once displayed by President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Kennedy's older brother.

"Kennedy endorsed him, embraced him and made his campaign his own," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. "So many of the hopes of everyone who were followers of Ted Kennedy are also resting on Barack Obama. He's the largest leader on the scene."

But while Kennedy seized the role of liberal standard-bearer, Obama perceives himself as a post-partisan president, one eager to shun ideological labels.

There is Hillary Rodham Clinton, another skilled politician who emerged from the shadow of a family name to develop her own reputation as a progressive who forged warm working relationships with her adversaries. Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, galvanized young people as a presidential candidate in 2004 and has become a high-profile advocate of the liberal case for a health care overhaul.

But Obama and Clinton aren't creatures of the Senate. For Kennedy, the Senate was his permanent redoubt; for Obama and Clinton, it was a sojourn. And Dean is a former governor of Vermont who has a scratchy relationship with Washington Democrats.

Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate's Democratic leader, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sit atop the legislative party hierarchy. But they don't have the same venerable status as Kennedy. And though Pelosi is embraced by the left wing of the party, she's too polarizing both inside and outside the Congress to match Kennedy's lawmaking touch.

Kennedy's old colleague John Breaux, a former senator from Louisiana who made his own share of legislative deals operating from the center of the party, said Kennedy might simply be too exceptional a figure to replace.

Unique in talent, unique in pedigree; a man of a certain time.

"No one ever challenged his sincerity of being a progressive, liberal Democrat," Breaux said. "Those credentials were there, they were earned. It was his family tradition. When he put his good-deal imprimatur on something, it made it acceptable to the more moderate to liberal progressive wing of the party.

"I don't know that there is any one person right now who can do that."

Read more stories on Sen. Kennedy's life and death at CBSNews.com:

CBS News Special: Ted Kennedy - The Last Brother
Mourners Gather For Kennedy Memorial
Kennedy Did His Life's Work Until the End
Who Is Heir to Kennedy's Liberal Legacy?
Obama: Kennedy Was "Defender of a Dream"
"Liberal Lion" Remembered
Brothers "Would Have been Proud"

In Kennedy's absence, for instance, the Senate debate over health care has involved a number of senators. Kennedy's good friend Chris Dodd, D-Conn., managed to get a bill out of Kennedy's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, but not a single Republican voted for it. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana has been working to win over Republicans, but has confounded liberals in the process.

Perhaps Kennedy's legacy is not meant for a single politician. The dealmaking could rest in the hands of centrists like Baucus or Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana or Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. All seek to work with conservatives and Republicans. But they don't have Kennedy's roar or the trust of liberals.

Or the left wing could fall behind the leadership of a diverse set of liberal lawmakers, each taking a sliver of what had been Kennedy's realm. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont is a vigorous voice on civil liberties; Dodd, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland on health care; and Richard Durbin of Illinois on labor. Congressional observers also mention Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island as a Democrat to watch in the Senate.

"I see other figures inside and outside the Senate who can be very effective, coax people on individual issues or for a liberal perspective, and I see a lot of talented people," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "But in the Senate we talk about whales and minnows. I don't see a great whale on the horizon who comes anywhere close to what Kennedy provided."

Kennedy died at age 77. He was elected to the Senate at age 30. He honed his skills in a different time.

Breaux said Congress' current Tuesday-Thursday schedule prompts lawmakers to head back to their home states, leaving little opportunity to develop cross-party friendships. Campaigns are rougher when the goal is to destroy an opponent. Ideological activists have a louder megaphones, mobilizing the public through new media.

Today, a guy like Kennedy might not be given a chance.
  • CBSNews