In the wake of Ted Kennedy's death, there's been a lot of speculation about who could fill his shoes in the senate. The answer, of course, is no one: Kennedy was unique—his credibility as a liberal combined with his seniority, his famous name, and his ability to get things done ensured that. Matt Yglesias made a good point about Kennedy's seniority yesterday:
[I]t’s worth being clear about the fact that he had such an impressive career in part precisely because he initially got a job he wasn’t qualified for. The Senate operates largely on the basis of seniority. A guy who can enter his fifth term and only be 54 years old is a guy who’s going to be able to wield some major influence for a long time.
Yglesias goes on to talk about how Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is as reliably liberal as they come, will probably never wield major influence in the senate because he was in his 60s when he was first elected. But Sanders isn't the person to look at here: his Vermont colleague, Pat Leahy, is. Leahy was in his mid-thirties when he was first elected. Leahy, who is 69, is a year and a half older than Sanders, but Sanders is 75th in Senate seniority. Leahy is third. When Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) retire (and they're both in their eighties, so that could be very soon), Leahy will be the most senior senator. He'll probably be in his early-to-mid seventies at that time. Kennedy got a lot of good things (voting against the Iraq war and trying comprehensive immigration reform) done in his seventies. Will Leahy be as effective?