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The Senate's Fighting Liberal | The Nation

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The Senate's Fighting Liberal

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Ted Kennedy is reluctant to be quoted directly about the future direction of the Democratic Party. Like a veteran ballplayer, he prefers to lead by example. He ducks questions about factions and agendas, but his savvy staff points questioners to the texts of two Kennedy speeches, delivered on January 11, 1995, and October 24, 2001.

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Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

On the rise of the "New Left" movement represented by organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement, organizations whose ideologies could not be pinned to liberal sects of the past.

Together, these texts provide a basis from which to discern Kennedy's road map. They sketch a combative alternative to the GOP's anti-union, anti-poor, anti-urban biases. They are also a warning against the compromising corporate alliances of Democrats like Terry McAuliffe, who made an $18 million profit on Global Crossing stock, and Senator Jeff Bingaman, whose wife made $2.5 million in six months as a lobbyist for Global Crossing before it went bankrupt.

The 1995 speech came in the context of Newt Gingrich being sworn in as Speaker in the wake of the GOP's gain of fifty-three House seats in November 1994--the same day that Mario Cuomo was defeated in the New York gubernatorial race and Tom Foley was trounced in the Washington State House race.

In this sail-against-the-wind speech, given at the National Press Club, Kennedy rejected the conventional wisdom that the 1994 elections proved the country was veering sharply to the right. He argued that the reason the Democrats lost so many elections was that they had compromised too much and shed their distinct identity. Kennedy famously declared: "If the Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition, we will lose--and deserve to lose. The last thing this country needs is two Republican parties."

Before Kennedy made this argument in public, he delivered it in private to President Clinton, who was in a deep funk over the 1994 election and being urged by pollster Dick Morris to compromise even more and embrace portions of the Gingrich-Dole agenda.

Kennedy told Clinton to fight for incremental national healthcare, jobs and an increase in the minimum wage, and to resist making any cuts in education. He gave Clinton a memo that summed up his thinking on what a Democratic Party in power should stand for. The memo said: "Democrats are for higher wages and new job opportunities. Republicans are for cuts to pay for tax breaks for the rich."

Kennedy's October 2001 speech on the Senate floor, opposing Bush's stingy, elitist economic stimulus package, is another road map for lost Democrats. In it, Kennedy asserted that any effective economic stimulus should "target the dollars to low- and moderate-income families, who are most certain to spend it rather than save it."

The key to Kennedy's politics is his belief that Democrats must simultaneously advocate for the poor and the middle class at the expense of the wealthy and corporate America. As someone whose policies and politics are so well integrated, Kennedy knows that liberals win elections when the poor and the middle class vote together. And liberals lose when the suburban, indpendent middle-class votes with the upper classes.

Kennedy made his populist thinking explicit on January 16, when he became the first senator to urge postponement of $300 billion in tax cuts for the affluent. He said the savings should be applied to prescription drugs for the elderly, extending unemployment benefits and protecting Social Security. Since January, only one other senator has joined Kennedy--Paul Wellstone, the Senate's most progressive member.

What is not at all clear is how Kennedy's mentoring of John Edwards fits into his broader thinking about what his party should stand for, and who should be its nominee in 2004. When I asked a Kennedy friend about Massachusetts junior Senator John Kerry, who is testing his own candidacy for 2004, I was directed to page 565 in Adam Clymer's "definitive" biography of Kennedy.

That page contains an anecdote about a January 31, 1995, meeting of Democratic Party leaders from both houses. It was convened to consider whether to back Kennedy's bill raising the minimum wage, from a miserly $4.25 an hour. Kennedy arrived late for the meeting, and as he walked in, he heard Senator Kerry voicing his doubts about the bill. "If you're not for raising the minimum wage, you don't deserve to call yourself a Democrat," was Kennedy's angry response.

For whatever reason, Kennedy doesn't want to appear dogmatic or overbearing about where Democrats should go from here. But this remark makes vivid his thinking that higher wages, more jobs and more healthcare are the foundations of the future.

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