When Ted Kennedy won his first election in 1962, he joined a Massachusetts congressional delegation composed of Republican Leverett Saltonstall in the Senate and eight Democrats and six Republicans in the House. Though Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature, Republican John Volpe served as governor. Massachusetts, then, was the picture of divided government. But today, a week after Kennedy’s death, Democrats hold every statewide constitutional office, both houses of the legislature have been in Democratic hands for half a century, and Democrats constitute the Bay State’s entire congressional delegation. In the last election, no Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives reached 30 percent of the vote. Massachusetts has become the epitome of a one-party state.
Massachusetts steadily drifted left. Where Massachusetts went, its longest-serving senator followed—and where Ted Kennedy went, the Democratic Party followed. Democrats lined up behind Kennedy because they believed in the Church of Camelot, because Kennedy embraced the FDR–LBJ activist-government model that had served the party well during its heyday, and because they had the tendency to mistake the most liberal voice in the room for the smartest voice in the room. The story of Democratic Party presidential politics between 1968 and 1984 reads something like Waiting for Godot, with the youngest Kennedy brother playing the title character. Would he accept a place on the ticket? Would he run and fulfill his destiny? Except for in 1980, Kennedy kept Democrats waiting. When another Kennedy presidential run became out of the question, Ted helped play kingmaker for two Massachusetts presidential nominees and provided a crucial endorsement for the current president that did more to sway Kennedy’s national coalition than his in-state flock. He was like E. F. Hutton: when he talked, Democrats listened.
Kennedy’s 47-year journey in elected office gives credence to political scientist David Mayhew’s explanation for the political behavior of officeholders: that they are “single-minded seekers of reelection.” Kennedy’s adherence to Massachusetts public opinion undoubtedly served his political career well (just two men have served in the Senate longer). But in taking their cue from Kennedy—a representative beholden to the wishes of an electorate remote from the American political center—Democrats damaged their identity as a national party.
Kennedy never styled himself a “fighting conservative,” as his older brother John did in his initial run for public office. It’s nevertheless instructive that his primary challenger in 1962 ran from his left, and that a third-party “peace” candidate saw fit to enter the general election against him. He may have exited politics as the last liberal lion, but he entered mundanely promising to bring home the bacon. “He Can Do More for Massachusetts” was the crude campaign slogan of the president’s brother in 1962, appealing to concrete rather than abstract concerns.
“The identification of the Kennedy family with the Catholic Church is so great that really Ted is a Prince of the Church in this state, no matter what he does,” complained an aide to Kennedy’s Republican opponent that year. From seven-year-old Ted’s receiving first communion from Pope Pius XII to his mother’s public reminiscence that she had wanted her youngest son to become a priest, Kennedys and Catholicism became intertwined in Catholic Massachusetts. But all that changed dramatically with the emergence of new issues like abortion and gay rights. Prior to Roe v. Wade, Kennedy had believed that society had a “responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception,” which included “the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.” But Kennedy’s reversal on the issue was complete, making his support of abortion rights as pronounced as his identification with the Church had been.
Kennedy died as a symbol of his state’s “Taxachusetts” moniker, having blasted Ronald Reagan’s 1981 reduction in the top marginal tax rate from 70 to 50 percent and then George W. Bush’s more modest cut. But Kennedy’s early career illustrates a willingness to go against the big-government grain on occasion. As the junior senator from Massachusetts, he voted for the tax cuts initially proposed by his brother (and passed posthumously) that reduced the top rate from 91 to 70 percent. Though the march of history had, by the end of his career, slashed those 70-percent rates in half, a recalcitrant Kennedy—and the party that so idolized him—fought a losing battle to keep tax rates high.
Ted inherited neither the America First foreign-policy views of his father nor the liberal anticommunism of JFK, but the newly dovish tendencies of brother Bobby, who, by his ill-fated 1968 presidential run, was swimming deeply in New Left currents. For the next 40 years, Ted Kennedy and much of his party remained bound to this 1960s zeitgeist. “Are we concerned at all about people in a far and distant land? Do we want to defend freedom?” Kennedy rhetorically asked critics of the Vietnam War in 1965. “We do, because this is our commitment, our heritage, our destiny.” But Ted’s destiny, after he called for the bombing of any position in North Vietnam that strengthened the enemy, was to become a leading dove. Though never so bombastic as Bobby, who compared Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam with Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, Ted nevertheless was ultimately so shaken by Vietnam that it became the prism through which he would see future conflicts involving the United States. Whether clandestinely seeking alliances with Soviet leaders to bolster the nuclear-freeze movement in America in the 1980s or likening George W. Bush to Saddam Hussein in the 2000s (“Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management—U.S. management”), Kennedy’s Vietnam evolution often led the senator, and his party, to depict America wearing a black hat on the world stage. What played in Cambridge and Amherst, however, didn’t play in Peoria—or, for that matter, in much of the United States.
“The President is not above the law,” Kennedy wrote of George W. Bush in 2005. “He is not King George. Yet, with sorrow, we are now learning that in this great land we have an administration that has refused to follow well-crafted, longstanding procedures that require the president to get a court order before spying on people within the United States.” He added that “such an arrogant and expansive view of executive power would have sent chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers.”
But it didn’t send chills down Ted Kennedy’s spine when his brother, and not George W. Bush, was president. Warrantless wiretaps were among the most contentious issues in Kennedy’s first run for elective office. The neophyte candidate supported them, and his primary opponent highlighted this as one of their few policy disagreements. Edward McCormack, who as Massachusetts attorney general had restricted his own powers on warrantless wiretapping, proclaimed, in his first debate with Kennedy, “if we’re going to invade another’s right to privacy . . . law enforcement officials should be required to go to the courts and get a search warrant, in effect, and bring wiretapping within the purview of the Fourth Amendment.” Kennedy responded by justifying warrantless wiretaps in cases that safeguarded America from its enemies (which, judging from President Kennedy’s use of such powers, presumably included Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Hanson Baldwin). Ted defended his brothers—the president and the attorney general—against McCormack’s charges by anticipating Bush’s argument: “The only place which would be provided for the United States Attorney General to provide for the wiretaps would be in cases of national security.”
After nearly half a century in public life, any politician who maintained absolute consistency would personify Emerson’s quip about “the hobgoblin of little minds.” But Kennedy’s about-face on big issues—taxation, the social issues that so loudly dominate the national conversation, and America’s role in the world—are extraordinary, even when considering his great longevity.
Like Robert E. Lee, Kennedy inspired intense adoration because he championed the lost cause. He was the shining star in a dimming galaxy. The state he represented, from which both the president and the Speaker of the House hailed when he went to Washington as a 30-year-old senator, lost enormous clout over the course of his career. Shortly before Kennedy’s death, the Boston Globe reported the imminent loss of another seat in the state’s congressional delegation, bringing Massachusetts’s representation in Congress down to 11 from 16 when Kennedy first won his seat. Democrats occupied the Oval Office for 22 of the 30 years prior to his election; in the 30 years after, they controlled the White House for just ten. The rule-or-ruin politics of the Kennedys helped drive both Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter from office. The Reagan Democrats, so crucial to liberal electoral decline, might have been just as aptly termed “Ted Kennedy Republicans”—Election Day refugees driven from the Democratic Party by a blame-America-first foreign policy, affinity for higher taxes, and slavish commitment to abortion.
If this is not your grandfather’s Democratic Party, it’s largely because the Ted Kennedy laid to rest last week was not your grandfather’s Ted Kennedy. Representing an outlier state, Ted always reaped the rewards from his electorate for moving left. But by tethering its national agenda to Ted Kennedy’s, the Democratic Party was more often punished.