Senator Kennedy was from an old era of Senate politics, an era that engendered bipartisan deals and encouraged the art of compromise, dominated by moderate senators from both parties. Over the past twenty to thirty years, radicals from both parties have increasingly dominated the ranks of the Senate, leaving moderates to fill only about 10% of the chamber. As a result, the Opposition party seeks only to delay and obstruct and the Majority party pushes through its legislation on party-line votes.
Professor Sandy Levinson even go on to blame this state of affairs on our "undemocratic Constitution," pointing out statistics like the six senators on the Senate Finance Committee negotiating health care reform (an illustrative irony in itself - many who have lameted the loss of compromise have been the same ones impatiently demanding that the Senate Finance Committee drop its negotiations and "just approve a plan") represent a mere 2.77% of the U.S. population. This charge, however, seems to miss the point. The Senate was never meant to represent the American population as a whole, rather Senators represent their individual states. Besides this, the Constitution has governed the United States for well over 200 years and the Senate has been considered "the world's most deliberative body" for much of that time, admired by many around the world as one of the most august legislative chambers in history.
So if we have indeed lost the art of compromise in our politics and assuming our Constitution is not to blame (indeed, we have argued here that the Constitution engenders compromise), what has caused our supposed decline in bipartisan bills facilitated by compromise? It seems to me that this decline correlates with the rise of conservatives in the Republican Party during and following the time of President Reagan and the disappearance of that strange politician truly of a bygone era, the Southern Democrat. The Republican Party has become much more monolithic, dominated completely by the conservative movement, while the Democrats have been all over the map between moderate to liberal (or progressive to use the current label of choice).
Nevertheless, the Republican and Democratic Parties were both largely dominated by moderate and liberal politicians prior to the last generation's rise of conservatives. President Nixon, who fought for universal health care and Employer Mandates and instituted wage and price controls, was hardly a conservative by today's standards (or any era's standards, for that matter). President Ford nominated John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, one of the most liberal justices in the history of the Court. Conservatives had no voice in the government prior to Reagan's election to the presidency, so they were effectively locked out of the debate and ignored.
So when one side is completely sidelined, how is the resulting federal legislation the result of compromise? One side (liberals) and moderates agreeing among themselves might be compromise, but not to the degree that these fellows pining for the good old days would like to believe. For all their acrimony, true compromises were struck in the 1990's between President Clinton and the Republican Congress time and time again: the 1996 welfare reform law, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the balanced budgets in 1997 and onward, to name a few.
The process of compromise is always ugly when one is in the middle of it, and it never looks like compromise (remember the cries of deadlock and obstructionism when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans forced a shut down of the federal government in 1995?). But given the time for the political process to work itself out, the end result is ALWAYS better than a partisan wish-list crammed down the collective throats of the electorate. Voters might swallow the bitter pill of such a legislative maneuver, but the majority party will be short-lived in their majority status. Americans have longer memories than Talking Heads give them credit for.