News & Views from 465 California Street

Kennedy Fatigue

Clint Reilly
Jan
26
2010

An electoral earthquake shook Massachusetts last Tuesday. When the dust settled, the U.S. Senate seat held for 40 years by Ted Kennedy had fallen to Republican upstart Scott Brown, the Democrats’ 60-seat majority in the Senate had crumbled and the Democratic to-do list was in ruins.

Martha Coakley’s loss was a severe blow to President Obama.

Everyone has their reasons why it happened. Obama’s miscalculation. The economy. Health care overreach. Coakley’s listless campaign. Scott Brown’s truck:

I wonder, however, if the loss wasn’t a final repudiation of Kennedy’s big government vision by his former constituents.

When Kennedy chose to endorse Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary two years ago, the political press corps swooned. Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz called it the turning point of the Democratic Primary.

“Democrats have searched for half a century for a successor to the legacy of the two Kennedy brothers – Jack and Bobby,” Balz wrote in his campaign diary. “Today the third Kennedy brother told Democrats that Obama is worthy of carrying that mantle – of rekindling the Kennedy magic.”

The magic of Camelot? At the time, I felt that the power of Kennedy’s support was vastly overrated by the political media. Indeed, Massachusetts went overwhelmingly for Clinton just weeks after Kennedy anointed Obama. What did this say for Kennedy’s sway within his own state? Caroline Kennedy’s senate run in New York also flamed out.

It was said that former New York governor Mario Cuomo almost never left his state. That was one of the major reasons he never became president. Kennedy exhibited the same brand of insularity, generally content to rest on his laurels as “the Lion of the Senate.”

Kennedy was a creature of Washington. His clout rarely expanded beyond the Beltway. I saw it with my own eyes.

During my decades in Democratic politics, Kennedy was a virtual stranger here in California. His few national political relationships were mainly cultivated during his brotherscampaigns in the 1960s. Over time, Kennedy seemed to retreat into pure ideology, growing more and more disconnected from the concerns of a changing Democratic electorate.

Kennedy’s political principles were also vintage 1960s. He exhibited genuine and heartfelt concern for the poor and dispossessed, an orthodoxy that positioned him as an unapologetic liberal and an impassioned fighter for progressive causes. But Kennedy failed to update his perspective over the years, overlooking the legitimate and growing struggles of middle class Democrats who paid taxes and subsidized social programs – but received little or nothing back from government that benefited their own families.

Reagan-Democrat” became a moniker for unnecessarily disaffected suburban Democrats who felt that their party failed to understand their concerns and advocate for them. By losing this vital component of the Democratic majority, many critical elections throughout the country – particularly in California and the West – were lost to Republicans.

It was left to a new generation of Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore to move the party back to the center on issues like crime, welfare reform, deficit reduction and downsizing big government.

Other voices also broke new ground on seminal issues like environmental protection and global warming. Kennedy’s 60s coalition of labor and minorities often could not even hold together union workers, blacks and Latinos in many urban elections.

Kennedy’s legacy is said to be universal health care. But when Massachusetts voters elected a Republican to succeed him last Tuesday, this vital reform was put in serious and instant jeopardy.

If any health care legislation emerges from Congress this year at all, it will certainly be watered down. In no small part, Kennedy’s legacy will be decided by his own successor, a man diametrically opposed to Kennedy’s politics in almost every way.

Obama and congressional leaders will shoulder the blame for Coakley’s defeat, but Kennedy fatigue may have been the true cause.

Maybe Massachusetts voters just got tired of Camelot.

Comments (10)

  • Your remark, He exhibited genuine and heartfelt concern for the poor.
    To bad Mary Joe wasn’t poor, then maybe ted(I never held a real job in my life) kennedy would should some heartfelt concern for her.

    Posted by: Marty Wood | January 26th, 2010 at 7:54 am

  • You might also add the Middle Class revulsion on his open borders, infinite immigration views. Kennedy did more harm to America by altering the immigration laws and setting the stage for a demographic/ethnic transformation that has turned America from a successful country into a Kumbaya-land of Celebrating Diversity even as we balloon to a billion people here thanks to immigration.
    I am quite happy to think of Teddy spinning in his grave over this turn of events.

    Posted by: Wanda Berger | January 26th, 2010 at 9:22 am

  • Your article hit the nail on the head. When one is faced with paying
    high taxes and is struggling to raise a family, economic issues take a back seat to social issues. If a person is not a member of a union or receiving some form of government assistance, then they get no benefit whatsoever in voting for democrats.
    We are all tired of paying high taxes for the cost of big government with over paid workers at the top who will eventually draw large pensions and lifetime medical care at our expense.
    Keep writing.

    Frank N

    Posted by: Frank N. | January 26th, 2010 at 10:03 am

  • Nice try, even plausible in part but I think the answer is a repudiation of Obama’s wrongheaded policies and the flawed political process. He campaigned to change Washington, create transparency and eliminate waste and special interests, fix the economy and jobs, but a year later he has made things worse in all these categories.

    I think that and the sense that a one party dictatorship isn’t good for our democracy won Scott Brown the senate seat.

    You forget that he campaigned on the legacy of JFK and Reagan. So your suggestion is a stretch, I think.

    If you don’t get the message you can’t hope to make a successful course correction, like Clinton did in 1994.

    Learning the blame game as Matalin’s husband (I forgot his name) suggested in an FT Op-ed is laughable, not only because they have been blaming Bush for over a year now and it is producing neary a yawn, except for the far far far lunatic left. It is time to take responsibility, especially in light of the fact that Dems have a virtual dictatorship.

    Erich

    Posted by: Erich | January 26th, 2010 at 10:06 am

  • Like Obama, Teddy Kennedy had a life-long pass from the media. His life-long carousing in the capitol was ignored as was his steady womanizing. Google the article by Michael Kelly published a few years back in Vanity Fair to get an idea. The “sandwiching” of a waitress by Teddy and his old drinking pal Chris Dodd is detailed there as are Teddy’s attempts to pick up young women on the sidewalk from his chauffeur-driven limousine. These disgusting old reprobates had their night-time revels overlooked in a way that would be unthinkable if a Republican was involved. The MSM covers up more stories than it ever reports. Much of Obama’s background and early associations remain veiled in mystery. Read Richard Cohen’s column today to get an idea of how journalists are only just now beginning to acknowledge how Obama wasn’t given the long look any modern democracy needs before someone occupies the White House. Political correctness explains Obama but not the way the John Edwards story was ignored. It took a tenacious supermarket tabloid to bring us that sordid story involving a man who was once nominated for the second highest office in the land. Edwards’ character weaknesses, including his laziness and lack of preparation as a senator, were known but not reported. The rise of Fox News demonstrates what can only be called a market correction in the media. People are going where they think a serious effort is being made to tell us what’s going on. The venomous reaction of the White House and the left to this development shows how much they have invested in the status quo.

    Posted by: Banjo | January 26th, 2010 at 12:48 pm

  • How would Hillary have handled her first year in the Presidency?

    Posted by: Tony Gantner | January 26th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

  • I read your piece in the Mercury News today. While, perhaps, you may have arrived at some truth about the Massachusetts’ vote, though an ardent 60′s liberal myself, I believe the Massachusetts story is really more complicated than dissatisfaction among Reagan Democrats or simple dissatisfaction with big government.

    I think you did not address a number of factors. Ask yourself, what the vote might have been had it been a Kennedy family member running. Massachusetts, tired of the Kennedys? I think not. At the death of Kennedy, there were thousands who came by to pay their respects to him and the family.

    “As the motorcade arrived in Boston, thousands of mourners lined the route and cars pulled over to watch the passing hearse.

    Boston residents applauded as the cortege wound its way through the center of the city.” ABC News
    http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/TedKennedy/story?id=8423842

    I think that the electorate was bombarded with an expensive campaign to drown out the Democratic Message, I believe the so-called populism of tea partiers from all over the country has been financed and fostered by the very kind of money sources that have been working to undermine Health Reform, the Obama Agenda and that the Brown/Coakley race was seen as the opportunity this well funded so-called populist campaign to stop anything progressive by going for the jugular. In essence that money succeeded, and two days later, the Plutocracy and money influencing approach has been actually enshrined by the Supreme Court as the personified right to spend their money as they please. Lies be damned.

    To the extent that the election was not swamped by money from the far right, and that voters had an opportunity to fairly analyze their choices for the Senate, I think it is every bit as plausible to consider that, in fact, the Massachusetts voters were worried about the particulars of the Senate version of the Health Reform Bill, because I understand they had already tried out some of the measures in their own State’s attempt at Universal Health. I think they were worried that Medicare was going to be reduced, i.e. that Universal mandates were going to be funded by shortchanging Medicare recipients. Without a public option, there really would be no choice but to spend megabucks on private insurance premiums. I think that many may have looked at Obama and the Democrats as having been week-kneed n true health care reform and stimulus spending.

    Could we at least look at the financial contributions that were made to Scott Brown, before we proclaim centrism the winner. Could we not at least look at the history of FDR, when fears about deficit spending nearly overrode progressive reforms.

    Mr. Reilly, I have always admired your political analyses, but I believe there are additional factors to analyze in this one.

    Karita Hummer
    San Jose, CA

    Posted by: Karita Hummer | January 26th, 2010 at 3:33 pm

  • I read the West County Times, and I enjoy your (weekly?) columns v ery much, most of the time. Your time span and perspective appeal to me; I am likely of a similar generation, so my political point of view was formed during the New Deal days which may be about the same time as yours, and I recognize with familiarity your column’s references to people and events. (Today’s column is a good example.) If I tell you that Gary Bogue and Clint Reilly are my two favorite columns, I hope you won’t feel denigrated by being in a class with pets & wild animals. I find his columnns fascinating, even though I no longer own a dog or cat!

    But I really savor politics, and amazingly you do a better job, for
    me, than most columnists in the NYTimes, Chronicle, or West County Times’ opinion page. So, count this as a love letter.
    SR

    Posted by: SR | January 26th, 2010 at 4:16 pm

  • I read your columns in the ContraCosta TIMES. I’d like to suggest that you give your opinion about the huge amounts of money both the Federal and CA State governments spend on Illegal Aliens for welfare: living expenses, medical, education for their children. Often at the Post Office I observe these workers sending money orders
    home to their native countries when they should be paying back here where they (presumably) earned income. Also, Congress, Obama and Governor Schwarzenegger should strongly request Mexico and other Latin American countries from where these Illegals arrive, to REIMBURSE the U.S. for the Billions we have spent/are spending
    to take care of their national citizens. I am a taxpayer who worked many years for my retirement money and now can barely find the money for my mortgage and property taxes because our governments are so broke.

    Posted by: Beth | January 26th, 2010 at 4:17 pm

  • I too don’t think that Mass was tired of the Kennedy’s. Coakley ran a poor campaign and the campaign took the Kennedy endorsement for granted. Ted Kennedy campaigned like the fierce lion that he was…she did not. I agree with Katrina, there are additional factors to analyze in this particular campaign.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | January 26th, 2010 at 6:44 pm

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