Robert Byrd, who died early this morning, was at core a conventional New Deal liberal. He was a quondam segregationist, probably one of some conviction — he had been a Ku Klux Klan organizer, after all, though he later claimed he had joined only to advance his career. But for Byrd as for his party, race was a secondary concern; redistributive economics came first. The New Dealer attitude toward segregation was much like Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery — whether the institution would remain or be scrapped was a question not of its inherent evil but of how it affected larger political objectives.
For all that the policies he supported were predictably terrible, Byrd was the last real Senator left, virtually the sole repository of the chamber’s institutional memory and dignity. He could be counted on during the Bush years to stand up for the legislature in the face of executive encroachment. He at least understood that the Senate is not meant to present a mere administrative formality for the president — even if, like most politicians, he was more conscious of the separation of powers when the man in the Oval Office wasn’t of his own claque.