When Ted Kennedy declared that he was running for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, his announcement was bathed in symbolism, and it posed immediate headaches for Jimmy Carter. Kennedy, the lone surviving brother of the family dynasty, had by then established himself as a Senate leader, and here he was, declaring his challenge to his own party’s incumbent president.
While Reagan was ascendant, conservative ridicule of Kennedy helped harden his image as a liberal icon.
Carter’s tepid approach to the issue of providing health care to all Americans was one motivation for Kennedy's run. Ultimately, however, his campaign developed into something much larger—a call to liberal arms that would echo through the age of Reaganism.
Kennedy had staked his candidacy to an agenda of achieving a key set of decidedly liberal goals. Primarily, he vowed to fight for liberal economic and social causes—seeking ways to reduce poverty levels, enacting legislation to provide universal access to health care, and expanding the scope of civil rights. His stinging attacks on Carter provided a liberal bookend to Ronald Reagan’s charges on the right that Carter was responsible for the “malaise” that besieged Americans.
“The present leadership,” said Kennedy, “does not understand that we are willing, even anxious, to be on the march again.” He said that Carter had failed to “release the native energy of the people,” and worse, “had adopted all the old Republican policies” echoing the approaches of Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. “It’s time to have a real Democrat in the White House again,” Kennedy thundered.
But he never had a great shot at wresting the nomination from his party’s incumbent president. Gaffes and lack of direction plagued his campaign. Kennedy uttered ham-handed phrases on the stump, including “the rising price of inflation.” According to his biographer Adam Clymer, Kennedy also had a habit of “shouting [that] looked awful on television.” Nonetheless, the campaign unleashed a series of largely unexpected ripples across the broader landscape of American liberalism.
During the 1980 campaign, Kennedy’s anti-Carter bromides prevented Carter from focusing on attacking his Republican general-election opponents and stoked the hostility toward Carter that had already existed among some liberals. Kennedy didn’t concede until the convention and even then refused to make a full-throated endorsement of Carter or campaign for him.
Kennedy’s failed White House run, his last hurrah for the presidency, contributing to the rise of Reagan by splitting the Democratic Party, positioned him as the champion of liberalism against Reaganism in the decade ahead. When the Democrats lost the Senate in 1980 and a whole generation of liberals there was wiped out, Kennedy remained. He emerged as the leading opponent of conservatism, dwarfing other Democratic leaders over the course of the decade’s drama—from Walter Mondale to Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo to Michael Dukakis. Kennedy held fast to his Senate seat, defended liberal ideas in legislative battles, and offered a coherent and consistent defense of the virtues of big government and its capacity for lifting up the lives of the poor, the sick, the homeless, and minorities.
To be sure, Kennedy's victories against Reagan were limited. Reagan’s tax-cutting, deregulation and supply-side economics ran counter to Kennedy’s core convictions. Yet, Kennedy picked his spots against Reagan, promoting his liberal philosophy, even though it was out of fashion with the views of the majority of the American electorate.
When Reagan proposed cutting 88 federal programs including meals for poor children, community health centers, and health-care assistance for migrant workers, Kennedy successfully blocked it. He convened Senate hearings to investigate lax regulatory oversight by Reagan’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, decrying “the record of this agency…shameful and tragic,” and pressured the agency to strengthen its safety regulations.
On social issues, Kennedy had more success than he had on economics. In 1982, the Voting Rights Act faced what George Washington University historian Mary Ellen Curtin described as “a moment of crisis.” Supreme Court decisions “had called into question whether some of the Act’s remedies for addressing the lack of minority elected officials were constitutional” while hardliners in the Reagan administration sought to weaken the Act's key provisions. But Kennedy intervened, reaching a compromise with the powerful Republican Senator Bob Dole that produced an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in favor of renewing the 1965 landmark bill.
Kennedy was also a champion of women’s equality and gay and lesbian rights. He promoted medical research into HIV/AIDS, pushed to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, endorsed equal pay and treatment of women in the workplace, and continued to advocate the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. To liberal constituencies—unions, groups, civil-rights organizations, and women's rights groups—Kennedy had become their most reliable protector.
He was unapologetic in expressing his beliefs. “The answer to the problems of the Democratic Party is not for us to pretend that somehow we are similar to Republicans,” Kennedy declared in 1982. “Let us resolve that we will not run away from our commitments as Democrats, as progressives, and as liberals,” he said another time.
While Reagan was ascendant, conservative ridicule of Kennedy helped harden his image as a liberal icon. During the 1986 midterm elections, Reagan rallied Republicans by raising the boogeyman of Kennedy. “Do you want Ted Kennedy controlling the confirmation of federal-court judges?” he demanded. In those elections, the Democrats regained control of the Senate and Reagan’s prediction about a battle royal over the courts soon came true.
Reagan’s nomination of ultra-conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court was the culmination of a decade-long battle between Reaganism and Kennedy liberalism. Kennedy led the fight against Bork, opposing him chiefly on civil rights. Bork, for instance, had opposed the Baker v. Carr decision (1962), which ultimately helped open the door to greater African-American political representation in the South. Kennedy worked furiously to line up the liberal opposition to Bork’s confirmation, making “hundreds of telephone calls to black political leaders and ministers” and urging them to join the campaign against Bork, according to Clymer. Kennedy’s leadership against Bork represented a rare liberal triumph over the seemingly invincible Reagan. It signaled that, at least on some social issues, liberalism wasn’t as politically unpopular and out of step as Reagan made it appear.
Ultimately, the 1980s will be remembered as Reaganism's high tide—the moment when tax cuts and deregulation were codified as national policy and rhetoric about the evils of big government became embedded in the national lexicon. But if Reagan put his stamp on policy and politics, Kennedy mounted a worthy and ardent defense of liberalism around which liberals could rally. He indeed compiled a record of bipartisan achievement, compromising with Republican senators for a larger purpose: to defend and preserve important liberal programs and ideals. During the years when admitting to liberalism was considered a foolish political anachronism, he more than embraced the liberal label. He reveled in being Reagan’s foil. In the age of Reagan, Kennedy’s greatest period, he seemed to take a page from the editorial launching the conservative flagship National Review, standing “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Matthew Dallek is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, the incoming acting director of the UC Davis Washington Program, and the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics .