Julian E. Zelizer: Senator Kennedy and Legislative Liberalism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. You can learn more about Zelizer at www.julianzelizer.com.]

Today President Obama honored the late Senator Ted Kennedy by calling him "the greatest legislator of our time." These were fitting words for a man who demonstrated just how much can be accomplished by learning the ways and means of Congress.

President Obama's words were a reminder that losing the 1980 Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter might have been one of the best things to ever happen to Senator Ted Kennedy. Much of Kennedy's earlier career had been consumed with hopes of winning the presidency. Although Kennedy proved to be a skilled legislative tactician from the moment that he arrived on Capitol Hill, there was always speculation about whether he would be the next member of the family to inhabit the White House. The Chappaquiddick scandal in 1969 forever undermined his ability to achieve that goal, but he did not stop trying during the 1970s.

By 1978, Senator Kennedy had become frustrated with Jimmy Carter. Like many liberals, Kennedy felt that Carter had moved too far to the center, focusing on issues like inflation over unemployment and abandoning problems like national health care. At the Democratic midterm convention in Memphis, Kennedy finally unleashed on the president: "Sometimes a party must sail against the wind," he said, "now is such a time."

In November 1979, Kennedy announced that he would challenge the president. Carter said he didn't care. "I'll whip his ass," the president said. But polls showed that Kennedy was favored by as much as two-to-one.

But Kennedy's campaign did not go well. During a television interview that was broadcast shortly before Kennedy officially announced his candidacy, the senator could not explain why he wanted to be president. Given his eloquent speech at Memphis, nobody thought he would have a tough time with the question. But he did, perhaps reflecting his assumption that he was always destined to run.

Kennedy won some primaries, including New York and California, yet he was outmaneuvered by the president who ran up the delegate count. According to biographer Adam Clymer, his staff had failed to conduct adequate polling before he ran and underestimated how much Chappaquiddick would define his image. One of Kennedy's advisors noted that the senator had responded to every question about the incident, but that didn't matter: "They've all been asked and all been answered. It's that people don't like the answers."

At the Democratic Convention, the tension between Carter and Kennedy was on public display. Kennedy delivered a powerful speech. He said: "I am confident that the Democratic Party will reunite on the basis of Democratic principles, and that together we will march towards a Democratic victory in 1980. And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our Party in 1980 that we found our faith again."

Carter's speech paled in comparison. As the convention ended, a large number of Democrats appeared on the stage to stand alongside Carter and show their support. The crowd waited for Kennedy for fifteen minutes. When Kennedy finally walked on stage, he raised his fist to the Massachusetts delegates. Then he curtly shook Carter's hand and walked away after a few minutes. Kennedy had practiced a more enthusiastic embrace but decided not to do it. Nor did he lift Carter's arm--the traditional sign of party unity. After Kennedy left, the delegates chanted "We Want Ted!" The senator returned. At that point, it appeared as if Carter was chasing him, only to have Kennedy merely put his hand on the president's shoulder. Ronald Reagan took note.

Carter felt that Kennedy should have healed the divisions and that his challenge had hurt the Democrats in the general election.

Although Kennedy did not abandon his presidential ambitions after 1980, it had become evident that he had little chance of becoming the president of the United States, particularly after Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement seemed to have captured the heart of America.

But the loss in 1980 was an unexpected blessing, as it was responsible for focusing Kennedy on his career as a legislator. And Kennedy turned out to be outstanding at the job. What made him so unique was his ability to retain a broader ideological commitment while simultaneously mastering the art of compromise. When Kennedy had first entered the Senate in 1962, Georgia's Richard Russell told him that "you go further if you go slow." Kennedy took Russell's maxim to heart.

After 1980, he worked on fighting for liberalism one bill at a time. He joined the tradition of liberals like New York Senator Robert Wagner and Missouri Democratic Representative Richard Bolling who made Congress their home base as they fought for their political values. He was an unreconstructed Great Society liberal who was determined to fight for health care, civil rights, and social justice. When Kennedy made deals with Republicans, everyone was sure that he would be back the next year to fight for more. It was the second part of this equation that is crucial to understanding his legislative style. This is why the most ardent liberals respected him so much at the very same time that Republicans genuinely appreciated his role as dealmaker.

Kennedy offers an important lesson of politicians of the future. Too often, newcomers to Washington have their eyes set on the Oval Office from the moment they arrive in town. But up-and-coming stars should remember that members of Congress who do their job well can leave behind a legislative record that few presidents ever achieve. Kennedy also used the bully pulpit of Congress to caution against the use of military power and in favor of diplomacy and arms reduction.

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, he died a deeply frustrated president because most of his domestic agenda had been bottled up on Capitol Hill by a coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans. Freed from his own presidential aspirations after the 1980 primaries, Ted Kennedy was able to concentrate on taking the fight directly to Congress. In doing so, he made liberalism a legislative reality--even in an era of conservatism--and gradually inscribed his ideals into the nation's laws.

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