Keeper of the Liberal Flame

He was, as he lay dying, new again. Ted Kennedy outlived the Reagan-Thatcher conservative era to which for so many years he led the opposition. He played a key role in putting Barack Obama in the White House, creating the possibility for a renaissance of American liberalism, the cause he led for the past four decades. He came to Washington one last time to vote for the kind of Keynesian stimulus that had been out of favor in the age of laissez-faire but that embodied, however imperfectly, Kennedy's belief that government had the ability and the duty to create an economy that not only mitigated capitalism's excesses but made it work for ordinary Americans.

He did not get to liberalism's promised land, of course. The universal health coverage he'd fought for throughout his career is still unrealized; his death may make it harder to realize, at least in the immediate months to come. Labor law remains unreformed, and America's 12 million undocumented immigrants still live in the shadows with no legal path to citizenship. These were all battles that Kennedy would have led; he was the go-to guy, the champion, the orator, the deal-maker for the uninsured, the undocumented, the unable-to-join-unions; the senior senator from Massachusetts and for all the excluded in American life.

I was fortunate to have been in the room when he was at his greatest, at a succession of speeches beginning at the Democratic Party's Midterm Convention in Memphis in 1978. Kennedy and the United Auto Workers had been pushing the Carter administration to bring an ambitious plan for universal health care to the Hill, but Carter demurred. The administration also began moving away from classic New Deal economic policies, deregulating industries and cutting back spending as joblessness spiraled. Increasingly, it was Kennedy who spoke out against many of these changes. At Memphis, Carter delivered a lackluster speech that won a tepid response, but Kennedy absolutely electrified the delegates with a passionate address on the need for universal health care. The delegates stood and cheered straight through the last two minutes of Kennedy's delivery -- his voice was so resonant that he concluded, rightly, that he could be heard even over the din. The speech laid out and created the momentum for his coming challenge to Carter.

(It also set the template for a Kennedy convention speech. There was in Kennedy's podium presence a kind of old-school stentorian formality, and a kidding of that stentorian formality, rolled into one. Like his brother John, he reveled in the rites of politics and certainly seemed to be having a very good time.)

Two years later came his greatest and most celebrated speech, at the 1980 Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden, in which he devoted all of one sentence to endorsing Carter, who'd narrowly defeated him in the primaries, and the rest of the half-hour to making an impassioned case for what by then had become the embattled liberal cause. In the early primaries that year, Kennedy's had been an uncertain trumpet, but as his attacks on Carter's proto-neo-liberalism grew sharper and his defense of New Deal economics grew stronger, he began rolling up victories. By the time he got to the Garden, he was ready for the speech of his life.

The talk included characteristically elegant affirmations of the causes of women's and civil rights and biting attacks on Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and his crazy notions. It concluded with a moving description of the Americans Kennedy had met while campaigning who were suffering through hard times, and his pledge to continue fighting for them. But read today, what stands out is his opposition to the rightward movement of the economic mainstream and to the Democrats' retreat from their historic commitment to full employment. Even more, what stands out is his apprehension that the unionized, industrial America that anchored the nation's prosperity and the Democrats' popular majorities was giving way to a meaner economic order.

"My fellow Democrats and my fellow Americans," he began, "I have come here tonight not to argue as a candidate but to affirm a cause. I am asking you to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice. I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work.

"Our cause has been, since the days of Thomas Jefferson, the cause of the common man and the common woman. Our commitment has been, since the days of Andrew Jackson, to all those he called "the humble members of society -- the farmers, mechanics, and laborers." On this foundation we have defined our values, refined our policies, and refreshed our faith.

Later, taking aim at the recession that Carter's Fed Chief Paul Volcker had engineered, Kennedy continued, "Let us pledge that we will never misuse unemployment, high interest rates, and human misery as false weapons against inflation. Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy. Let us pledge that there will be security for all those who are now at work, and let us pledge that there will be jobs for all who are out of work; and we will not compromise on the issues of jobs.

"These are not simplistic pledges. Simply put, they are the heart of our tradition, and they have been the soul of our party across the generations. It is the glory and the greatness of our tradition to speak for those who have no voice, to remember those who are forgotten, to respond to the frustrations and fulfill the aspirations of all Americans seeking a better life in a better land.

"To all those who are idle in the cities and industries of America let us provide new hope for the dignity of useful work. Democrats have always believed that a basic civil right of all Americans is that their right to earn their own way. The party of the people must always be the party of full employment.

"To all those who doubt the future of our economy, let us provide new hope for the reindustrialization of America. And let our vision reach beyond the next election or the next year to a new generation of prosperity. If we could rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II, then surely we can reindustrialize our own nation and revive our inner cities in the 1980s.

"Finally, we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must -- We must not surrender -- We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth."

This was a litany of causes soon to be lost, if they were not lost already. Industrial policy, jobs for the inner-city poor, universal health care -- these were causes that the Democrats discarded in the years that followed. Kennedy maintained his hold on the party's heart, but its head moved off to neo-land, to the more modest ambitions of a Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. No one could stir the Democrats like Kennedy, but his speeches to conventions increasingly became affirmations of tribal allegiance, not outlines of the policy directions that the party would take.

Besides, Kennedy had a separate arena for policy directions. After he lost the 1980 presidential primary contest, he became not only liberalism's public cheerleader but its foremost congressional deal-maker -- whether the deal was forestalling the worst excesses of Republican presidents or rounding up the votes for reforming immigration laws, creating the Americans with Disabilities Act, raising the minimum wage, or keeping Robert Bork off the Supreme Court.

By 2009, however, Kennedy's New Deal Democracy was new again. With Obama in the White House and the Democrats controlling Congress, the causes for which he fought are just a few maddening votes short of passage. Industrial policy has reappeared in the Democrats' lexicon. Re-regulation is in the air. Unions and health care, the causes of Kennedy's lifetime, are in furious battle on the Hill. The Democratic head and the Democratic heart are more closely aligned than they've been in decades.

More than any other American, Ted Kennedy kept liberalism's flame burning through the dark of the Reagan era. The liberals who continue his battles will need all the wit and smarts and joy and passion for justice that he brought to those fights.

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