There are two faces of American liberalism. The uglier visage was described by James Burnham, who called it the “ideology of Western suicide.” But liberalism also played a storied role in the American Century, contributing to the defeat of Nazism, the death of Jim Crow, and a political consensus that endured fifty years for better or worse.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, dead of brain cancer at age 77, personified liberalism at its most decent and its most decadent. In his personal life, “degenerate” might often have been a better word. He took the Kennedy name from the glory of Camelot to the disgrace of Chappaquiddick, vacillating between the two from his famous Democratic National Convention address in 1980 to the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in 1991.
The man who would become a beloved father figure to the sons and daughters of his slain brothers, left another family’s daughter to die in an incident that would have ended virtually any other politician’s career — and should have ended his. Yet Kennedy paid less of a price for behavior that led to the death of a human being than did professional football player Michael Vick for cruelty to animals.
The senator from Massachusetts who spoke so eloquently and movingly about the right of black Americans to live free of humiliation and prejudice would go on to play sordid racial politics. Ted Kennedy often casually smeared his opponents as racists and bigots, most disgracefully during the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork. Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court was defeated in part due to Kennedy’s ululations about segregated lunch counters.
An early Cold War liberal who railed against the Viet Cong in support of the Kennedy-Johnson interventions in Vietnam was by Richard Nixon’s presidency an ally of the Democratic Party’s McGovern wing. He would oppose the Reagan defense build-up that helped ring down the curtain on the Soviet Union and instead champion nuclear freeze.
The Catholic Democrat who believed government should protect the weak from the strong would waver when there were votes to be had from feminists but not the unborn. In 1971, Kennedy’s liberal compassion was consistent: “When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.” But he ended his career voting to allow even partial-birth abortion.
Kennedy didn’t just follow the liberal herd, however. Even after his national stock plummeted, he was one of his party’s most effective and consequential legislators. Handed his brother John’s Senate seat like a family heirloom — “If your name was simply Edward Moore,” his Democratic primary opponent noted scathingly, “your candidacy would be a joke” — he wasted no time in making use of it.
Instead Kennedy cobbled together legislative majorities (often bipartisan) that expanded the federal government’s role in health care, boosted immigration levels, raised the minimum wage, increased environmental regulations, and enhanced legal protections for the disabled. Even many conservative Senate colleagues liked and admired him. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told an American Spectator dinner last year that Kennedy, unlike many others on Capitol Hill, kept his word. Writing more than a decade ago in National Review, John J. Miller accurately described Kennedy’s “clever mix of demagoguery and pragmatism” that made him “adept at sweet-talking the odd Republican” behind closed doors while he excoriated the GOP in public.
In Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy would also outgrow his brothers’ shadows. While the Camelot mythology has lingered longer there than in the rest of the country, Kennedy’s deep Bay State popularity had more to do with his ability to bring home the bacon. Unlike his colleague John Kerry, who is seen as aloof and disengaged from local concerns, Kennedy was as active in Massachusetts issues — even on behalf of the Boston business community — as he was the national legislative agenda. Kennedy’s staff was excellent and its delivery of constituent services legendary.
Only once, in that Republican year of 1994, was Kennedy seriously challenged for reelection. Mitt Romney briefly led him in statewide polls. But Kennedy ran an effective advertising campaign highlighting workers who had been laid off from Romney’s business enterprises. His base of senior citizens, liberals, and partisan Democrats held firm. Kennedy withstood the GOP tide and beat Romney by 17 points, even as Republican Gov. William Weld won a second term with 71 percent of the vote.
Now that Kennedy is gone, it is hard to see a Democratic leader on the horizon who possessses his unique blend of bipartisan dealmaking and unrelenting liberalism. Kennedy didn’t just bowl Republicans over — he often dragged them along with him, moving the country incrementally to the left. Democrats had better hope that their filibuster-proof Senate majority makes such skills superfluous. They wouldn’t want Ted Kennedy’s dream to die on their watch.
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