EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece by Dave Brudnoy appeared in the November 7, 1994, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here.)
Every six years, as he steps forward to let the masses know of his availability for continued occupancy of the governmental seat to which he is entitled by divine right, Edward Moore Kennedy, the Senior Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, hears a familiar refrain: this year things will be different; this year there will be an opponent of more than token significance; this year those irritating Republicans have managed to find somebody who’ll give him a run for his money.
And each year it is a delusion, floated hopefully by the Republicans, who wonder just how long the dynasty can last, and given a bit of credence by the media, which find the routine slaughter of the GOP innocent by the savvy senior senator a bore. Had you time and curiosity enough, you could go back to the early 1960s and trace the delusions that have led those who would defeat him and those who would chronicle the defeat to miss the point, and the boat. The S.S. Kennedy has been unsinkable.
At least until now. Or is this just another media myth bearing no relation to reality? This is not my first NR piece on why this year is different from all other years, but one must hope that it will be my last. We are coterminous on the scene, Ted and I, I having come up to Massachusetts from New Haven in 1962, he having arrived at the age of 30, just old enough to take over the Senate seat occupied until then by the compliant college pal of his brother, the president.THE MYTH OF INEFFECTUALITY
One of the myths spread by people who don’t like Ted Kennedy is that he is ineffectual. The rap should be that he is effectual, and we dearly wish he weren’t. Who can forget his hysterical attack on Robert Bork? If confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, Kennedy said, Bork would bring back an America of back-alley abortions, Negroes pushed to the rear of the bus, and other vivid images of Reaction Rife. Bork didn’t become a Supreme Court Justice, but Ted Kennedy won re-election by a sizable margin the next time he was up.
Indeed, except for the 54.2 percent squeaker back in 1962, all of his victories have been gratifyingly unambiguous. After a special two-year term, he ran again in 1964, having suffered a broken back in a plane accident. He triumphed in 1970, in the wake of Chappaquiddick, running against who can remember whom? — though I do remember being sought as the candidate by some Bay State conservatives who thought a young doctoral candidate and NR essayist would make a nifty sacrificial lamb. On through 1976, 1982, 1988, and now, you would think, an election that will extend his tenure in the Senate into the first days of the 21st century.
Ted’s success, of course, is partly due to his status as torchbearer for The Family. If you want to experience a little despair around election time, tune in to a local talk program as the devoted Kennedy worshippers call to insist that since The Family has given so much — Joe, Jack, Bobby — it is unseemly even to contemplate a vote for anyone else. This cohort may be aging and dying off, but in Massachusetts the argument has long legs.
Still, nostalgia and dynasty worship aren’t sufficient to explain Kennedy’s three decades of highly impressive electoral victories. Far from ineffectual, he has been the very model of a modern tax-spend liberal. Ted Kennedy could not have voted as he has and repeatedly won re-election in Mississippi or in Utah, and his one odd miscalculation, the attempt to replace Jimmy Carter in 1980, demonstrated how tightly wound are the Bay State tethers binding Kennedy to those who love him.
Of course, Democratic senators across the country have perfected the technique of voting left for five years and then speaking right come election time. But there was an almost engaging effrontery about Senator Kennedy’s recent speech supporting a bill to restrain unfunded federal mandates. “I am deeply concerned that the costs of meeting federal requirements,” he said, “are making it harder and harder for many communities to hire more teachers, more police officers, or more firefighters. . . . Congress must be sensitive to the burdens federal legislation may impose on state and local governments.”
A LOT OF MANDATES
Thirty-two years in the Senate amounts to a lot of legislation, including decades of unfunded mandates, particularly of the hug-a-tree variety so popular with the vice president. Kennedy’s record of support for such mandates is almost dutiful; it includes votes for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Superfund Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Most of these votes were attacked by fiscal conservatives as piling huge burdens on local governments and private businesses that did not always have the economic strength to bear them. And not just by fiscal conservatives. The U.S. Conference of Mayors generally counts as a moderate-to-liberal forum; but its study of the impact of unfunded federal mandates concluded that their total cost for 1993 came to $6.4 billion, and the projected costs for 1994–98 amount to an astounding $54 billion.
Massachusetts was not, of course, exempt from these effects. The study showed that the fiscal-1993 costs incurred by its cities from these mandates included $4.5 million for Boston, $17.8 million for Lynn, and $14.6 million for Springfield. To be fair, Massachusetts has long resonated to that kind of compassionate-cum-interventionist voting. So in Senator Ted the state may have got what it wanted; it certainly got what it deserved.
Another piece of effrontery: a fierce foe of “greed,” especially during the wicked Reagan years, Kennedy found no difficulty in voting for nearly two dozen congressional pay raises. He and his colleagues were earning $30,000 in 1965; by 1993, the congressional salary was $133,600. But that’s not what Senator Ted means by greed. Here is how he explained the concept in the June 10, 1992, Congressional Record: “But attitudes took a dramatic turn for the worse in the 1980s. The same distorted obsession with short-term profit that characterized that decade of greed — that brought us a wave of mergers and leveraged buy-outs, the savings-and-loan scandal, and skyrocketing executive salaries — is reflected in the sudden increase in the use of permanent replacements.”
The solution? Luxury taxes. Few voters in Massachusetts, where economics is not widely understood, realized that ludicrously high taxes on fancy cars, boats, yachts, furs, gems, and the like harm the rich less than the much larger cohort of people who build yachts, service fancy cars, sell snazzy furs, and polish pretty gemstones. Like most of his constituents, Kennedy found the economic case against luxury taxes far less persuasive than the emotional reaction in favor of them. But events are a great teacher. The tax caused the shutdown of yacht-building yards and a sharp increase in unemployment among their workers.
Congress repealed the luxury tax (except for the levy on fancy cars), with Kennedy voting in favor. From 1963, when Kennedy first took his seat in the Senate, until now, he has effectively served the perceived interests of his constituents. If the Bubbacracy weren’t in such disarray, and the president and his co-president so massively unpopular, Kennedy could continue this sort of voting for yet another term, or more.
This year, however, may be different. (I know, I know.) The incumbent faces not a sacrificial lamb or a zealot but a charming young businessman, son of former Michigan governor George Romney, a self-made millionaire blessed by a lovely wife and five handsome sons, possessed of a made-for-media voice and a seemingly irrepressible habit of getting under Senator Ted’s skin. W. Mitt Romney is also a Mormon, an affiliation that doesn’t seem to distress Ted in the case of his good friend Orrin Hatch. Never has Senator Kennedy challenged Senator Hatch to say whether he disagreed with his church’s pre-1978 position on blacks in the ministry. But the senator’s nephew, Representative Joe Kennedy, the self-styled pit bull of The Family, launched an awkward assault on Romney’s religion, then apologized for the remark in an open letter. Romney refused to accept the apology, whereupon Senator Ted weighed in with a clever bit of cheesiness in which he disavowed any intention of using Romney’s religion in the campaign.
THE HUNK FACTOR
The religion matter seems to be helping Romney. His supporters have repeatedly noted that Senator Ted’s brother, back in 1960, had to fend off attacks by anti-Catholic worrywarts (or bigots). The visuals — the matinee idol Mitt and his brood of mini-Mitt hunks versus the aging senator — have also helped Romney. After all, the handsome Ted of the 1960s did not exactly hide his good looks as he ran against less physically favored Republicans. Sad though it may be, the look of a politician is not incidental to the public perception of him. And though Kennedy, especially since his marriage to the vivacious Victoria Reggie, has slimmed down and is no longer Jabba the Hutt, he is still no Mel Gibson — or Mitt Romney.
We approach the end. Both camps are nervous, with mere days to go before the election and the polls showing a dead heat. Slash-and-burn ads are the order of the day. The Kennedy campaign insists that Romney has destroyed jobs as a venture capitalist. Yet the Boston Globe, long a lapdog of the Kennedys, reported: “A Boston Globe examination of [Romney’s] investment shows that as a businessman Romney did a lot more building than slashing, that the bulk of the companies he worked with ended up stronger and more profitable, and that more of his companies added jobs than cut them. The record . . . looks even better when set against the backdrop of the American economy. . . . Bain Capital [Romney’s main company] was actively involved with 61 companies. Of those, 36 added jobs, 14 had no change in employment, and 11 had decreases, most quite modest. . . . But clearly Bain’s winning percentage was better than the economy’s as a whole.”
Mitt Romney seems to be pretty much the hero his devotees see him as, and making a fuss about a guy’s unusual religion, when his personal record of tolerance and good-natured openness is undisputed, is a non-starter. If this isn’t the year that Ted Kennedy finally passes into a comfy retirement, then one has to say that no such year looms on the horizon. The tides turn, the winds shift, and even The Family’s dynastic fortunes may at last be on the wane.