Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edward Kennedy 2: The 1980 Campaign

Getting over my initial reluctance, which I discussed here, to write anything in the wake of Ted Kennedy's death, I find there is more that needs to be said.

His unsuccessful candidacy for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination is one of many subjects mentioned in the obituaries.

I made it clear in my earlier post that I'm not running for president of the Ted Kennedy Fan Club. But I think he gets a bit of a bum rap, regarding that 1980 race.

The obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post mention that the campaign got off to a shaky start. They specifically point to Kennedy's disastrous TV appearance with Roger Mudd, who was a friendly interviewer. But they fail to mention another event that occurred the same day (November 4, 1979): the Iranian seizure of the American embassy in Tehran.

President Carter's poll numbers had been plummeting for some time. That was largely what tempted Kennedy into the race. But there was a rally-'round-the-flag feeling in the country for a while after the seizure of the hostages, and Carter's popularity went back up. That allowed Carter to defeat Kennedy in early primaries and caucuses.

Kennedy won some of the later primaries, after Carter's popularity started to fall again, especially after the failed rescue mission on April 24, 1980. But the president had built up too much of a lead for Kennedy to overcome, and he was renominated.

As I've mentioned previously, I was at that time in a different place politically than I am now. I was active in the Democratic (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) Party in Minneapolis, and chaired our local precinct caucus. Most of us backed Carter, mainly out of loyalty to a fellow Minnesota DFLer, Vice President Walter Mondale.

I think that Kennedy's defeat can be attributed to bad luck in terms of timing, as much as to poor campaigning on his part. How he would have fared against Ronald Reagan is another one of those what-ifs that can be endlessly debated.

Also, it's not clear that Ted had the same burning ambition for the White House as his brothers John and Robert. They both served in the Senate, as well, but, for them, it seems to have represented only a stepping stone to higher office. Even before 1980, Ted had established himself as a true Senate man.

In 1969, Ted Kennedy became the youngest Senate majority whip in history. He lost that title in the wake of the incident at Chappaquiddick later that year. But he eventually accumulated enough seniority to chair, first the Judiciary Committee and, later, the committee that is now known as Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

If Kennedy had been able to hold on to the whip position, he probably could have advanced to majority leader when Mike Mansfield gave up that job in 1977. It's debatable whether a party leader is more powerful than a committee chair. Either way, while I don't agree with the way he used his influence, there is no denying that Kennedy was one of the most influential legislators in history.

No comments: