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Kennedy and the Liberals

A plea for realism.

One interesting question about 1980 is how liberals will divide their time between supporting Edward Kennedy for president and criticizing him. Admittedly this question assumes that most liberals will support Kennedy for the nomination, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm and alacrity. But that assumption seems to me solidly grounded, both in actual observation and in the logic of the current political situation.

Liberals at the national and state levels were leaders of the draft-Kennedy movement, and his candidacy has won the support of those who preferred other potential challengers to Carter. The president will get some liberal support from those with particular ties to the administration, and from mayors and governors solicitous of good relations with their favorite funding source. But the overwhelming impression one takes away from any gathering of liberal Democrats these days is that their ideological hopes rest with Kennedy.

Carter himself recently underlined this point by drawing on the deeply conservative equation of compassion with fiscal irresponsibility in differentiating himself from Kennedy: “Senator Kennedy is much more inclined toward the old philosophy of pouring out new programs and new money to meet a social need,” he told TV interviewers in Boston. Then Carter reassured conservative voters that his own tight-fistedness did not apply to the Pentagon: “I would be in favor of much stronger defense commitments than his record shows.”

In addition to their conflict on this central question of how to allocate our national resources, there is also a fairly sharp liberal-conservative split between the two on the issue that could dominate next year's election: energy. Carter remains firmly pro-nuclear and generally committed to a hard energy path, while Kennedy has moved to an anti-nuclear, pro-conservation stance. The president has pushed for price deregulation, over the senator's objections, while Kennedy has been much more vigorous than Carter in pressing for strong antitrust measures against big oil. In the area of women's rights, where Kennedy has encountered some uneasiness from feminist leaders, he has consistently voted pro-choice on the abortion issue; Carter has urged poor women to be philosophical about the unfairness of the Hyde Amendment—which he supports.

Theoretically, a more serious challenge to Kennedy's appeal to liberals could come from Jerry Brown. Seated at a typewriter, I am tempted to play with the analogy of 1980 to 1968, with an embattled southern president, a whimsically unconventional Catholic philosopher, and a Kennedy engaged in a three-way race. But analogies are second only to metaphors in their capacity to stimulate elegantly inaccurate political analysis. The situations differ radically. Unlike 1968, this is still very much a two-man contest. As Brown himself seems to realize, he has not yet gained parity with Carter or Kennedy. And his strategy for becoming a major challenger seems likely to lessen his potential for taking liberal votes from the senator. Brown has made it clear to the national press that his initial goal is to displace Carter as the runner-up to Kennedy in the early primaries. This means continued emphasis on the more conservative aspects of his approach. It is difficult to see Brown taking progressive votes away from Kennedy while stressing a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. And Brown's pitch to the counterculture is somewhat confused by his strong advocacy of greatly increased spending for space colonies. For the anti-nuclear activists, for whom Brown has his greatest appeal, the solar system is a nice place to get energy from, but I doubt they want to live there.

Measured against his opposition, then, Kennedy emerges as the obvious liberal choice. This is the first presidential election in my memory where a liberal consensus has been possible so early. But being more appealing than the opposition is not enough for a candidate seeking to mobilize support among an ideologically committed minority. Even as they agree—or in some cases, concede—that Kennedy is the candidate likeliest to accomplish progressive policy goals, many on the left are simultaneously calculating ways to shape Kennedy's candidacy more to their liking.

This dual approach seems to me to be a fundamental strategic error. One of the things that makes Kennedy so attractive a candidate to liberals is his ability to attract votes across the ideological spectrum. Whether and how much of a rightward swing is taking place in the country may be debatable. That recent elections have been unkind to liberals is not. It seems a bit perverse to press a liberal senator to run for president precisely because of his potentially broad voter appeal, and then, once he agreed to do so, begin to jib at his efforts to capitalize on that broad potential.

For some on the left, the problem with Kennedy is substantive. There is a group of activists, many of them deeply concerned about the interrelationship of our national corporate structure and a resource-depleting energy policy, who viewed the 1980 election more as an educational than a political opportunity. Their plan to run a third-party candidate on a platform calling for fundamental changes in our economic and energy policy has been disrupted by the Kennedy candidacy: if he is the Democratic nominee, many of their potential allies will support him, thus weakening their impact on national politics.

FORCED AS THEY may be into reluctant support of Kennedy, they will do what they can to pull him further left on the basic structural issues that matter most to them. Allied with them in this posture will be some civil libertarians who have been unhappy with Kennedy's leadership position on the Criminal Code revision. Finally, among those who are dissatisfied with Kennedy's past record are some feminist leaders, whose unhappiness arises not from Kennedy's position on the issues, but from uneasiness about his personal life, exacerbated by the absence of women in positions of major responsibility on Kennedy's staff.

A much larger group of progressive Democrats find themselves essentially quite happy with Kennedy's Senate record to date. He has, after all, been the preeminent liberal leader on a broad range of issues for several years. Indeed, had his two brothers never been political figures, Kennedy's Senate career would stand out in recent history for its consistent and effective advocacy of liberal goals on economic and social issues. But many of those who recognize this have begun to debate what their reaction should be when Kennedy begins to move toward the political center for electoral purposes.

Here an analogy does seem to me instructive. Ronald Reagan, having assured himself by years of service of the allegiance of the right, enters the 1980 race determined to project a more moderate image. And despite the liberal view that the right is dominated by zealots, this moderation does not seem to have cost Reagan any substantial part of his conservative base. Phil Crane's effort to offer the true believers a haven from Reagan's apostasy has so far sputtered badly. Lyn Nofziger's resignation from Reagan's campaign out of frustration over the candidate's preference for John Sears's moderating strategy has not led to any significant conservative defections. And John Connally's ability to move major corporate executives to open their hearts and pockets has not been accompanied by any parallel movement toward him from right-wing activists.

Apparently, conservative voters have been convinced by years of Reagan-watching that his heart is with them, and they do not seem prepared to insist that he emulate Barry Goldwater in 1964—or even Ronald Reagan in 1976—so that they can enjoy the warm feeling in November 1980 of interring a candidacy that died of ideological purity.

Liberals could do well to emulate them. It is of course perfectly legitimate for those who find Kennedy insufficiently committed to the need for major structural change of the American economy to press their views on him. But by now, activists ought to be somewhat skeptical of the worth of concessions they wring from candidates in the few months prior to an election. Where a candidate is relatively unknown, with little in the public record to indicate his or her views, campaign statements become, by default, the basis for judgment. But in the case of Kennedy—or Reagan or Carter—we have a long public record on which to judge. On an overriding specific issue, such as the war in Vietnam or something comparable, it makes sense to press for a specific commitment, capable of being executed by a particular decision. But to press a candidate to commit himself to broad changes in perspective that run counter to a 16-year record seems an invitation to post-election disappointment.

Worse, it seems to me politically self-defeating. Here the strategy of those substantively dissatisfied with Kennedy's liberalism merges with those who find his Senate career admirable, but worry that he will change his ideological emphasis in the presidential campaign. That is, people in both groups are prepared to object to Kennedy's efforts to stress the more moderate aspects of his record. Indeed, several liberal leaders—who privately admit that they ultimately will support Kennedy—have announced that he must not take their support for granted, that he will have to make specific commitments to them before they join his ranks.

In a different political context this would make a great deal of sense. But the fact is that while Kennedy seems to me highly likely to win the democratic nomination, he faces a very uncertain future in November. By nearly unanimous agreement, the greatest political vulnerability Kennedy has is that a moderate-appearing Republican candidate such as Baker or Bush may succeed in painting him as a free-spending, inflation-causing, poor-people-loving liberal. What I do not understand is why many of my fellow progressives think it is in our political interest to help in this effort. Were Kennedy to run a campaign in which he repudiated his past support of liberal goals, announced his infatuation with Paul Volcker, and counseled poor people and minority groups to tighten their belts, liberals would rightly be angered. But this is neither what he has done nor what he is going to do.

Candidates who radically shift long-held public positions in midstream rarely succeed. In politics, it is a lot easier to alienate your friends than to win over your enemies. What Kennedy has begun to do—and what he will almost certainly continue to do in the campaign—is to shift some of the emphasis in his approach. There are in his record a number of issues he sincerely believes in which belie the knee-jerk caricature his opponents—Democratic and Republican—will seek to portray. It does not seem to me a betrayal of liberalism for Kennedy to stress his own concern with inflation or his leadership in the fight for deregulation. His position on the crime bill is unattractive to many liberals—but it is hardly one that he has adopted solely for campaign purposes. Indeed, the current version of recodification that Kennedy is pushing is far less of a problem to civil libertarians than the original version, now that Representative Robert Drinan has replaced the late senator John McClellan as Kennedy's major collaborator in this effort.

Kennedy's political task for 1980 is to hold on to the broad support he now has in the polls. To do this, he has to reach voters who disagree with some of the specifics in the liberal program he has worked for in the Senate, as well as many who are indifferent to these concerns. He will—I hope—do this by stressing a range of themes that respond to current popular concern about inflation and social turbulence. Knowing as we do from his record that he approaches this task from a basic commitment to a coherent, progressive ideology, it makes little political sense for liberals to demand that he periodically stop to reassure us.

AMERICAN POLITICS HAS become more fractious in the past decade than in previous history. To many activists, simply supporting a candidate without simultaneously seeking to press further ideological commitment on him or her seems almost unworthy. After all, we are not political drones blindly giving our allegiance to a leader, but independent thinkers whose support must be purchased with ideological coin. But, especially when the ideology to which one is committed is under severe political attack, even the most zealous ideologues must decide which candidate represents our best chance to win a very tough and important election. And the appropriate response in such a case is to support the candidate—not to threaten to defect when he or she seeks to win over those uncommitted to our vision, but rather to hope that the effort succeeds so that we can shape public policy in the post-election period.

In Edward Kennedy, liberals have a candidate whose long public record demonstrates a commitment to a coherent progressive approach to issues. He is not the perfect liberal, and in the course of a long campaign he will at times deviate even more than he has in the past from the liberal standard. Voting for a perfect candidate is a nice feeling, and I experienced it once, when I voted for myself the first time I ran for the Massachusetts Legislature. By the time I came up for reelection, I had a few problems with my record. But I overlooked them because I figured I was the best candidate I was going to get in my district, and campaigned for me as hard as I could.

I am prepared to make similar allowances to help elect a liberal president, since I can think of no better way to advance liberal goals in 1980.

This article appeared in the November 10, 1979, issue of the magazine.