Finally, Ted Kennedy gives us all permission to talk openly about the thing everybody has been talking about privately: succession.
(Well, OK, maybe some of us were writing openly about it from the get-go, but I mean for the people who aren't asshole journalists.)
As you may know, the state legislature changed the law on this back when they thought John Kerry was going to be President. Naturally, the last thing the state Dems wanted was for then-guv Romney to appoint the next US Senator -- even temporarily -- so they specifically made it so the seat would remain empty until an entire special election process played out.
But the concern now is that the Democrats will need Kennedy's vote for closure -- most notably for health care reform, but with exactly 60 Dems in the Senate there are bound to be other votes too. If Kennedy passes or resigns, the Mass. succession law would leave his seat vacant for months -- delaying legislation, and pushing controversial votes into the 2010 election year.
Talk of changing the law again has thus been much whispered, especially in the past couple of months. That's due to the combination of key upcoming votes, and the increasing pessimism about Kennedy's health. I don't have any special inside knowledge about his condition, but what I gather second- and third-hand is that the physical toll of what he's been through has left him in pretty bad shape. That doesn't mean he's on the verge of death -- and in particular, it doesn't mean the cancer has returned -- but it means he's not going to be bopping off and on the compound. That had already been evident from some things he missed (for example, the Providence funeral of Chris Dodd's sister in early July), but has become even more obvious as he failed to emerge for Eunice's.
That doesn't mean he couldn't make one last heroic trip to DC for a health care vote -- and I strongly suspect he's fully intending to do it if necessary. But again, this isn't just about that one vote.
But changing the law back to allow for an appointment is a very sticky political issue. For one thing, there's the Vicky problem -- from the start of this a year ago, it's been rumored that Ted wanted the seat to go to his wife, and would try to change the law so he could pressure Deval Patrick to appoint her. I don't know that that was ever true, but clearly the family is trying to squash that now. Still, it's a problem, and frankly a lot of pols around here don't trust her.
That's the least of it, though. Powerful people have been waiting a quarter-century for a Senate seat to open up here. AG Martha Coakley basically has a full campaign operation under a tarp, waiting for the green light. Cong. Steve Lynch is 110% in, especially in a special election where he doesn't have to give up his seat to try it -- which also applies to Capuano and other Reps. Given the strong loyalties around here, nobody wants to give Deval the power unless they think he'll use it for their guy or gal -- and not many in the lege trust Deval these days. And Deval probably doesn't want the power to piss anybody off so close to his own re-election effort.
They could try to work around this by having Patrick pledge to appoint someone who pledges to not run for a full term. But that's a lot of pledging for such high stakes. And if you make the law like it is in most states (and Mass. before the change), the temp would fill in until the next federal election, ie 11/10 -- which would mean that to run for the seat, Lynch, Capuano et al would have to give up their own seats to gun for the Senate. You can see how problematic this gets. So, presumably the law would provide for an appointed temp for just the few months while a special election is held to fill out the term. But wait, not so fast! Coakley supporters (who are legion, and powerful, and one of whom holds the senate gavel) will reasonably argue that a mid-year special election is a silly waste of money if you have a temp in place anyway, so why not have it on election day 2010 (or whatever year, as circumstances dictate).
There's another thing too -- the timing and nature of the succession campaign is not a neutral subject to Mr. Patrick. Without trying to parse it here, I'll just say that his own re-election odds could vary depending on whether there's a hot senate race on the same ballot, or whether there's a hot senate race diverting resources and attention in between now and then, or whether the hot senate race creates vacancies for other hot races, etc. etc. etc. Hell, for all we know he could appoint Charlie Baker to the Senate seat.
And aside from ALL that, the overarching problem is that opinion in the country is moving away from appointed replacements and toward special elections like Massachusetts's -- thanks in no small part to the shenanigans concerning another Kennedy family member, when Hillary Clinton's seat opened in New York. The Mass. legislature looked bad enough changing the law once for purely political reasons, but at least that put the decision in the people's hands. There's not a lot of appetite for doing it again, in the opposite direction, given the current mood of the state toward Beacon Hill.
Kennedy's letter helps, by giving them cover -- people freakin' love Ted Kennedy, so if he says it's OK they might not balk at it. But I still think it's a tough one.
And finally, let's take a moment to appreciate the tragic irony that if Kennedy was healthy enough to be in Washington whenever the health care legislation finally gets to the floor for a vote -- it would be a moot point, because he would have gotten the legislation passed and signed into law by now. The one person with the extraordinary political skill to work this kind of legislation through, has been unable to do so for the bill he cares about the most.