Camelot After 1980

Psst, Hillary: Ted Kennedy did not renounce the presidency and achieve his greatest legislative deeds after he lost to Jimmy Carter.

Ted Kennedy. Click image to expand.
Sen. Ted Kennedy

The press is inundating Hillary Clinton with advice to forget about the presidency, not just this year but for all time, just like Ted Kennedy did after he failed to wrest the nomination from Jimmy Carter in 1980. Kennedy, it is said, hunkered down in the Senate to craft (and, given his current robustness despite recently being diagnosed with a brain tumor, may well continue to craft) the legislation that became his true lasting legacy. This might or might not be good advice. It’s terrible history.

I’m not sure exactly where the post-1980 Camelot meme began, but in the May 21 Chicago Tribune, Michael Tackett wrote:

There is another model of a candidate who lost in a close primary, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who on Tuesday revealed he has a malignant brain tumor. He challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and took his fight to the convention. He was criticized at the time and to a degree marginalized as the rare Kennedy who lost a political race. But over time, he built an impressive record of accomplishment in the Senate.

That same day, John Farmer wrote in the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger that after 1980 Kennedy dedicated himself to “the most successful rehabilitation of an American political career in recent American history.” Five days later, Carl Hulse suggested in the New York Times, “Mrs. Clinton could adopt the model of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, after he lost the nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1980, and try to become a superior legislator, an approach that could play to her policy strengths.”

The following day, Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane wrote in the Washington Post:

In August 1980, with no hope left of winning the nomination, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy conceded defeat to Jimmy Carter in the Democratic presidential race. … And with that, at age 48, Kennedy returned to the Senate, where he committed himself to a career as a legislator, crafting landmark bills on health care, education and immigration. Many Democrats are now pointing to the Kennedy model as a path for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. …

In the June 2 Newsweek, Jonathan Alter wrote,

In 1980, Kennedy launched an ill-conceived challenge to Carter for the Democratic nomination. Despite trailing by 700 delegates, he took the struggle all the way to the convention, where he snubbed Carter on the podium and helped doom Carter’s campaign against Ronald Reagan that fall. … Kennedy remarried and, happy at last, devoted himself to the Senate, working across the aisle to amass an astonishing legislative record, particularly on health and education issues.

There are two problems with this Kennedy narrative.

The first problem is that all these accounts either state or imply that after his 1980 defeat, Kennedy abandoned instantly all thought of ever becoming president. In fact, Kennedy strongly considered running in 1984. He decided in December 1982 against running, partly because he thought (correctly) that the incumbent, Ronald Reagan, would be too hard to beat and partly because his children had urged him not to run. Next Kennedy considered, somewhat less strongly, a presidential run in 1988. He decided against that in December 1985. Not until then did Kennedy conclude definitively that his future lay in the Senate, not the Oval Office. In a prepared statement (drafted by Bob Shrum), Kennedy said, “I know this decision means that I may never be president. But the pursuit of the presidency is not my life. Public service is.”

In sum, Kennedy did give up all thoughts of running for president, but not until more than five years after the post-1980 Camelot meme has him doing so.

The second problem with these accounts is that they either state or imply that the stellar legislative record Kennedy has racked up in the Senate is somehow the product of his post-1980 redemption. In fact, while Kennedy achieved quite a lot in the Senate during the past 28 years, he achieved even more during the 18 years beforethat. That isn’t because Kennedy slowed down but because, during the earlier period, change was easier to achieve—partly because the Democrats held a comfortable and longstanding majority in the Senate and partly because Kennedy-style liberalism stood at high tide during most of the 1960s and 1970s. (The Democrats lost the Senate majority in 1980, regained it narrowly in 1986, lost it again in 1994, and passed it back and forth with the Republicans during most of the current decade. Sean Wilentz has labeled this entire era, with some justice, “the age of Reagan.”)

In 1965, Kennedy was floor manager for an immigration-reform bill that ended a system dating back to the 1920s that favored Northern European immigrants at the expense of others, particularly Asians. In 1972, Kennedy sponsored Title IX, the law that required schools to devote equivalent resources to girls’ and boys’ sports. In 1974, Kennedy sponsored the campaign finance bill that limited the size of political donations and established public financing in presidential elections. In 1978 and 1979, Kennedy was a crucial player in deregulating the airline and trucking industries. Nothing Kennedy achieved after 1980 can match the long-term impact of those five laws.

Since 1980, Kennedy has logged many fine achievements, both as legislator and as leader of the loyal opposition. He fought Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, he introduced the Americans With Disabilities Act, he co-sponsored the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, he helped Bush pass No Child Left Behind, and so forth. If Kennedy had done nothing before 1980, he would still be considered a highly productive and effective senator. One might also argue that for Kennedy, achieving anything after 1980 was so much more difficult, due to the changed political climate, that this period of his life ought to be singled out for special praise. But to suggest that Kennedy became an important and highly effective legislator only after 1980 is not only a willful misreading of history; it’s also, weirdly, a disservice to Kennedy, who learned the Senate ropes fast and put them to good use. Which, come to think of it, Hillary seems likely to do as well.