No provision in current law, that is. Before 2004, the governor would appoint someone to fill a vacant Senate seat, a procedure used by many states. The law was changed by the Democratic state legislature that year to prevent Gov. Mitt Romney from appointing a Republican to the Senate in the event that John Kerry won the presidency.
Now, Kennedy has asked that the law be . . . adjusted. In a letter to the governor and legislative leaders of Massachusetts, Kennedy calls on the legislature to give the governor, no longer a Republican, the power to appoint an interim senator to serve until the special election is held. The request, according to the Boston Globe, "puts Massachusetts lawmakers in a delicate position" because "Democratic lawmakers [are] nervous about being accused of engineering a self-serving change to help their party."
Kennedy's request puts some prominent advocates of Obamacare in a delicate position, as well. Michael Tomasky, for example, says, "If Republicans were up to this sort of thing, to pass a major tax-cut bill, would I criticize it? Quite frankly, I probably would. So, as much as I want health-care reform to pass, I can't quite put my heart into defending this. . . . I'll certainly grant that changing a law that's just five years old that was changed for political reasons in the first place is not the best way to do things."
Other liberal bloggers are not so fastidious. Ethics, schmethics, according to Matthew Yglesias: "When you have a state whose state legislature is firmly and forever in the hands of one political party, the smart thing is for the legislature to be constantly changing rules based on short-term considerations. Nothing's stopping them from changing the rules back later." Ezra Klein doubles down, saying that what appears to be a delicate situation for Democrats is really a moral dilemma for Republicans, one of whom could prove that the Senate traditions of civility and comity really count for something by voting for cloture against a filibuster of health care legislation as a measure of respect to an ill or deceased Ted Kennedy: "Conversely, if not one Republican can be found who feels enough loyalty to Kennedy to make sure that his death doesn't kill the work of his life, then what are all those personal relationships and all that gentility really worth?"
The obvious question about the shoe being on the other foot - would Klein insist that a Democrat vote to pass a major GOP initiative out of respect for an absent Republican senator - is not worth the trouble of pursuing. Both Yglesias and Klein are unapologetically committed to the position that justice is the interest of the stronger. The only criterion for determining whether the game is being played fairly is whether the right side is winning. Changing the rules as often and flagrantly as necessary in order to advance its prospects is just one more egg that needs to be broken to give the country the omelets it needs.
What's interesting is that at the same time they are making Sophists' arguments for achieving political goals by any means necessary, Yglesias and Klein are lamenting the way narrow, parochial concerns prevent the pursuit of the public interest - as they, broadly and selectively, define it. Yglesias is increasingly baffled by the "cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics." Klein, similarly, cannot understand why he is the lone Diogenes in Washington who doesn't worry whether it's "uncouth" to contend that votes against cap-and-trade and Obamacare are "literally consigning thousands of people to death."
When the life-and-death issues are not the ones Yglesias and Klein want addressed, however, the standards of civilized discourse are suddenly retrievable and relevant, even crucial. I think it's a safe bet that neither admires the bold commitment to principle of the protesters in front of abortion clinics who scream "Baby killer" at the cars entering the parking lot, and would not sit still for a long explanation of how American law since 1973 has consigned literally millions of babies to death. Nor would either be receptive to arguments that the consequences of a suitcase nuclear bomb being detonated in Times Square or Lafayette Park are so grave that the imperative to take the actions, overseas and at home, to find and thwart terrorists will necessarily take precedence over international law and civil liberties. To talk about consigning thousands of people to death in that context would be uncouth, manipulative, hysterical and jingoist.
Yglesias and Klein are both very young guys who've become blogosphere stars, so they may not have outgrown Attention Deficit Disorder. Neither seems to notice when an argument in one post doesn't square with one they write the next day. When lamenting the craven indifference with which legislators consign literally billions of people to death by not being Dennis Kucinich, both adopt the position that the graveyards are filled with indispensable men. They shake their heads at the vain, calculating politicians who would gladly see every last organism on the planet shrivel and die if it meant they wouldn't have to cast a vote that displeased a local interest or donor, reducing their reelection prospects by a fraction.
Neither mentions, however, that Sen. Kennedy has had 16 months to solve the problem of his succession without changing Massachusetts law. He could have resigned at any point after his brain tumor was diagnosed, leaving plenty of time for a special election to designate a senator who would vote for health care reform. If yielding office for the sake of a higher principle is noble, this particular hero could have extricated his party from their current dilemma at any point. Instead, Kennedy's long Senate career is destined to be bookended by two shabby, transparent maneuvers. He was elected to the Senate seat vacated by his brother John, but only after a compliant place-holder agreed to keep it occupied until Ted turned 30 in 1962. Now, again, the protocols of even-handedness are to be sacrificed for the greater good, and the greater good is to be defined to give maximum scope for Sen. Kennedy to define and pursue his ambitions.