United States: Ted Kennedy -- The myth of the `liberal lion'

Ted Kennedy during his first campaign for US Senate in 1962.

By Lance Selfa

August 28, 2009 -- Democratic Party senator Ted Kennedy's political career reflects the course of US liberalism, from its heyday in the 1960s to its sorry state today.

For decades, Ted Kennedy was the bogeyman used by conservatives in their fundraising appeals to raise millions of dollars. To them, the liberal Kennedy seemed to represent everything they hated--there was no easier way to get a right-wing crowd booing and hissing than to mention Kennedy's name.

So it was more than a little jarring to hear conservatives sing Kennedy's praises for his "bipartisanship" in the wake of Kennedy's death from brain cancer on August 25.

"There is nobody else like him", Republican Senator Judd Gregg told the Associated Press. "If he had been physically up to it and been engaged on this [the current health-care reform debate], we probably would have an agreement by now."

Yeah, right.

But the Kennedy that the right both demonised for being a liberal icon and praised for his willingness to "reach across the aisle" was one and the same. And the media punditocracy's assessment of him -- a doctrinaire liberal turned bipartisan dealmaker -- says a lot about what they considers the most important part of his legacy.

With a virtual guarantee of reelection every six years in the overwhelmingly Democratic Party state of Massachusetts, Kennedy compiled a consistently liberal voting record, with little fear that the Republican Party would be able to mount a serious challenge to him.

Kennedy went through a series of personal scandals that might have led to jail time for a less politically connected man -- from leaving the scene of an accident on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, that killed a young campaign volunteer in 1969, to his entanglement with his nephew who was charged with rape in 1991. But none of it put his reelection in doubt.

"[Kennedy] once said that 'I define liberalism in this country' ... and he really did for a whole half century", presidential historian Michael Beschloss told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on Countdown. Along the way, Kennedy played a key role in redefining and redirecting liberalism and its chief standard bearer in the US political system, the Democratic Party.

US liberalism

Fundamentally, Kennedy's political career is a chronicle of the decline of US liberalism, which once promised to end poverty in the USA, but now debates whether including even a mild "public option" in a health-care reform bill might be a bridge too far.

Ted Kennedy was the youngest child of the wealthy Kennedy dynasty that dominated Democratic politics in the post-World War II era.

He was elected to the Senate at age 30 in 1962 when one of his brothers was president and the other was attorney general. The New York Times decried this as an example of dynastic politics "demeaning to the dignity of the Senate and the democratic process". Even Ted Kennedy himself later conceded that the Times had a point.

He came to Congress as a standard-issue Cold War liberal. Through most of his first term in the Senate, he lined up with the northern wing of the party, then riding the liberal high tide of the Kennedy-Johnson years. Kennedy supported the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the ``war on poverty''.

He was also a loyal vote to fund the Vietnam War. He broke with the Johnson administration's pro-war position only in 1967, not long before his brother Robert launched his challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in opposition to the "unwinnable" war.

The Kennedy-Johnson years were a time of US economic expansion, when liberalism spoke of creating a "great society" of equality and opportunity. Kennedy's role in 1965 as floor leader to push through changes in immigration law abolishing quotas by national origin reflected this. In a time of economic boom and low unemployment, anti-immigrant voices were marginalised.

At that time, Kennedy stood in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, along with fellow senators Walter Mondale and George McGovern, who could be counted as reliable votes for legislation endorsed by civil rights organisations and the AFL-CIO. But Kennedy's signature issue was health care.

Health-care reform `cop-out'

In the early 1970s, Kennedy and Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan supported the creation of a government-run "single-payer" system to make health care a right for every American. Kennedy and Griffiths ran into opposition from Republican President Richard Nixon and business organisations.

Kennedy abandoned his own bill in 1974 and later supported legislation that preserved the role of the private insurance industry in the health-care sector. "My feeling is that this is the central cop out of liberal leadership", long-time single payer advocate Dr. Quentin Young said in an interview with Socialist Worker in 2003. "Ted Kennedy was the author of an excellent single-payer [universal insurance] bill of 1971. But now, since it's not considered feasible, they don't even push for it."

Kennedy's willingness to give up on big plans in exchange for incremental half-measures was emblematic not only of his adaptation to the backrooms of the US Senate, but also of a larger shift in the ambition and scope of liberalism as it began to feel the assault of the conservative ascendancy of the 1970s.

Within a few years, not only was a strengthened Republican Party readying the neoliberal attack on the gains of the 1960s, but conservative politics began to influence the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The policies that later became known as "Reaganomics" -- austerity for the poor, pro-business tax cuts for the rich, and deregulation -- actually got their start during the ill-fated Democratic administration of President Jimmy Carter, with an assist from Ted Kennedy.


As Lee Sustar wrote in Socialist Worker:

It was Kennedy who called for deregulation of the airline and trucking industries as early as 1974, two years before Carter was elected. "[Kennedy] won Carter to the cause in the 1976 campaign and ultimately gave the president the issue," the Boston Globe noted ... The consequences of Kennedy-sponsored deregulation are still being felt in the series of airline bankruptcies today and the virtual deunionization of the trucking industry.

Pro-business Kennedy staffers Alfred Kahn, who became a guru of deregulation under Carter, and Stephen Breyer, now one of the more pro-business justices of the US Supreme Court, pioneered these policies. Breyer also promoted, as far back as 1979, the idea that forms the core of today's "climate change" legislation--using a market in "pollution credits" to address environmental damage.

Kennedy wasn't as conservative as Carter, or as the next neoliberal Democratic President Bill Clinton. In fact, Kennedy mounted a failed liberal challenge to Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980. He denounced Clinton's 1996 "welfare reform" bill abolishing Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

But once the "liberal lion" Kennedy endorsed a free-market policy like deregulation, it made it easier for other more conservative Democrats to go along with the Republican Party as it proceeded to move US politics to the right. Kennedy even voted for the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill imposing mandatory budget cuts in 1985.

As much as right-wing politicians demonised Kennedy, they were happy to have his support when it came their way. "Even Ted Kennedy is for it ..." became a punch-line for conservatives seeking to win support for their retrograde policies. "Teddy was the only Democrat who could move their whole base", right-wing Republican Senator Orrin Hatch told Associated Press. "If he finally agreed, the whole base would come along, even if they didn't like it."

After George W. Bush stole the White House election in 2000, he made a point of wooing Kennedy on two of his chief domestic policy initiatives -- the No Child Left Behind education law, passed in 2001, and the Medicare prescription drugs benefit, passed in 2003. Both of these laws have become Trojan horses for continued privatisation, union-busting and corporate welfare.

That may not have been Kennedy's intention as he rounded up liberal support for these bills, but it certainly was Bush's. This raises the question of what Kennedy thought he was doing when he was negotiating with such dishonest brokers.

Immigration `reform'

Even if Kennedy could claim that Bush snookered him on these pieces of legislation, he couldn't say the same about another bipartisan initiative that loomed over the last few years of his life -- the immigration reform bill he crafted with Republican Senator John McCain. In fact, Bush  -- and big business -- looked to the Kennedy-McCain bill as an outline for their own position on immigration reform.

Despite the fact that millions of immigrants and their supporters marched to demand legalisation for all of the undocumented in 2006 and 2007, the Kennedy-McCain bill would have codified a massive "guest worker" program and increased "border security". Kennedy himself continuously made the case that his bill didn't amount to an "amnesty" for the undocumented.

Although it fell far short of the real demands of immigrants and their families, the Kennedy-McCain bill came to be seen as the only "realistic" legislation on offer. In the event, though, even the Kennedy-McCain bill wasn't conservative enough for anti-immigrant neanderthals in the Congress, and it went down to defeat.

It's this Ted Kennedy -- the one who put ideological ideals aside to cut bipartisan deals -- who the political media has celebrated so much since his death.

Over his senate career, Kennedy cast more than 15,000 votes. Many of those votes were in favour of expanding services for the poor, the elderly, children and the disabled, and rights for workers, immigrants, racial minorities, women, and gays and lesbians -- or against eliminating them. He described his 2003 vote against authorising "this misbegotten war" in Iraq as "the best vote I have cast".

But we shouldn't forget that -- as a mainstream politician who mastered the Washington game of logrolling and back-scratching -- Ted Kennedy also enabled policies that have devastated the lives of the ordinary people for whom he claimed to fight.

[Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History, a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. This article first appeared in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization in the United States.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 08/30/2009 - 11:13


CounterPunch, Weekend Edition, August 28-30, 2009

Mutterings From the Wake in Massachusetts

Kennedy's Sins Against Labor


I was raised, like most Irish-Catholics, not to speak ill of the dead—at least while the wake is still underway. Of course, the affliction known as “Irish Alzheimers” exerts a powerful tug in the opposite direction. Forgetting everything except the grudges keeps you focused on those parts of a departed politician’s legacy that won’t be highlighted from the pulpit or, in Ted Kennedy’s case, in fulsome obituaries run as front-page news stories, op-ed pieces, editorials, and internet encomia throughout the nation.

Here’s my own view of the senator. I was not a fan of Ted when he was alive and expressed this dissenting opinion, on several occasions, in our local rag, The Boston Globe, after Kennedy’s reccurring lapses as a friend of the working class became too painful to ignore. Ted Kennedy was not on labor’s side when key public policy shifts were engineered that disastrously weakened and marginalized American unions. After helping to deliver these legislative hammer blows, Ted was quick to offer his hand to a labor movement now lying flat on its back. But forms of assistance like boosting the minimum wage, helping immigrants, securing local defense plant jobs, or co-sponsoring the Employee Free Choice Act have hardly compensated for the ravages of “neoliberalism” that Kennedy aided and abetted. In the case of EFCA, any fundamental repair of federal labor law becomes more unlikely every day, even if our vacant Senate seat gets filled sooner, rather than later.

Of course, all who speak officially for “labor” would strongly disagree with this assessment. They are busy heaping praise on our fallen champion, as labor’s best friend ever. Compared to centrist Democrats who are quick to abandon workers at the drop of a campaign donation, Ted did appear to be the true “liberal lion” and patron of union causes everywhere. But here’s what I remember about the same Ted Kennedy, who sided with corporate America in its late 1970s drive for deregulation, who was MIA during the biggest anti-concession battle of the 1980s, who pushed trade liberalization in the 1990s, and who settled short on health care reform for the last several decades. (By the usual count at Fenway, it’s three strikes and you’re out. Being a Kennedy, Ted always got an extra pitch—so, in the box score below, the strikes against him number four.)

An Architect of Deregulation

In several key industries—trucking, the airlines, and telecom--nothing has undermined union membership and bargaining power more than de-regulation. Kennedy embraced de-regulation with gusto and, despite his other differences with Jimmy Carter thirty years ago, helped ram through industry restructuring harmful to hundreds of thousands of workers and their union contracts. By 1985, as Kim Moody describes in U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, the number of workers covered by the Teamsters’ biggest trucking contract had been halved. Today, fewer than 100,000 work under the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA)—down from 450,000 before Carter and Kennedy transformed the role of the Interstate Commerce Commission and codified that regulatory change via the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. The business-backed policy agenda “that would become known as ‘Reaganomics’ or more generally as neoliberalism,” had its roots in the Carter Administration, Moody points out. Two of its key objectives were deregulation and free trade; the first having been accomplished under Carter, the second was pursued with equal fervor and Kennedy vigor after Clinton became president.

A No-Show At NYNEX

Twenty years ago this month, 60,000 telephone workers in New York and New England began a bruising tussle with our regional phone company, then known as NYNEX. Two workers died, directly or indirectly, as a result of this strike. Hundreds were arrested, fired, or suspended (company discipline that was, in some cases, later modified or reversed). Rallies of up to 15,000 people filled the streets of Boston, as IBEW and CWA members demanded “Health Care For All, Not Health Cuts At NYNEX,” and explicitly tied their fight against give-backs to political agitation for national health insurance. To break the strike, management cut off medical coverage for all strikers and their families.

Everyone involved in this struggle assumed, initially, that Ted Kennedy’s long-standing advocacy of health care reform would make him a logical ally. Yet, despite repeated union overtures and invitations, Kennedy failed to make a single picket-line appearance or speak out on the strikers’ behalf in any way. Kennedy’s no-show role became so obvious mid-way through the walk-out that union members booed the very mention of his name at one mass rally in Boston. Finally, after four months, the strikers prevailed. To this day in the northeast, at the company now known as Verizon, workers make no premium contributions for health care, for either individual or family coverage. Although he was more supportive of labor at Verizon recently, Kennedy did nothing to “hold the line in ’89”—or help us use that strike to build the movement for national health insurance.

A Free Trade Recidivist

Kennedy’s disconnection from local concerns, whether labor-oriented or not, became a political liability when he ran for re-election a few years later. Early in his 1994 campaign against businessman Mitt Romney, Ted was not doing well in the polls. It began to look like Newt Gingrich’s mid-term Republican surge might take Kennedy out too. Massachusetts unions had good reason for further disenchantment with their senior senator; over labor’s strenuous objections, he had just helped Bill Clinton get the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ratified on Capitol Hill, while labor law reform was being buried in a useless White House study commission. Nevertheless, trade unionists rallied around the incumbent and helped torpedo Romney’s campaign, by exposing the union-busting record of Bain Capital, his private equity firm.

After Kennedy was returned to office with only 58 per cent of the vote (his smallest margin ever), I pointed out in a Globe op-ed piece that Ted now had a chance to “repay his debt to labor.” He could do this by bucking President Clinton and voting against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) during the lame-duck session of Congress about to begin. As a post-election concession to his labor supporters, Kennedy convened a one-man Senate hearing in Boston so local manufacturing unions could air their objections to GATT. As one of many labor witnesses, I trooped up to Beacon Hill to inform Ted that GATT, like the already approved NAFTA, “will mean more plant closings, downward pressure on wages, health benefit cuts, and loss of union rights.” Kennedy seemed irritated about having to be there at all. He interrupted and strongly objected to my insistence that GATT restrictions on “non-tariff barriers to trade” would lead to weaker protections for workers, particularly child laborers in the Third World. A Boston central labor council leader gave the angriest speech of the day. He told Kennedy that NAFTA was like “a knife you have stuck into the back of organized labor--and now you can either pull it out or plunge it in further.”

Kennedy returned to Washington and, one week later, stuck the dagger in deeper. He voted for GATT, which created the World Trade Organization, and accelerated the trend toward “corporate globalization” already underway regionally, thanks to NAFTA. Running for president last year, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton expressed belated concern about the fate of workers’ rights and environmental safeguards in various free trade deals. Kennedy, however, had no remorse, regrets, or doubts about trade liberalization--despite its negative impact on labor, here and abroad.

A Single-Payer Defector

In a cover piece for Newsweek last month, entitled “The Cause of My Life,” Kennedy proudly recalled his backing for Medicare in 1965. After that vote, he continued to advocate expanded public health insurance coverage for another decade or so. But just as more Americans—like the NYNEX strikers in 1989—began to gravitate toward his “Medicare for all” position, Kennedy abandoned it. As he explained in Newsweek, “I came to believe that we’d have to give up on the idea of a government run, single-payer system if we wanted to get universal care.”

Kennedy’s badly-timed surrender had the effect of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how many more recruits the single-payer movement generated, political insiders deemed it “off the table.” And what better evidence was there that national health insurance was “unachievable” than its one-time champion finally seeing the light and settling for less, in Massachusetts and nationally.  Meanwhile, opportunities to build a stronger movement for real reform—like major strikes against health care cost shifting—were ignored, even in Kennedy’s own backyard.

In 1993, Kennedy embraced Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated “managed competition” plan, helping to deflate grassroots organizing for social insurance instead. He did lend his name to a 2006 bill to expand Medicare coverage but devoted most of his time, lately, to promoting the Massachusetts model of subsidized private insurance coverage, which utilizes individual and employer mandates to prop up our dysfunctional system of job-based benefits. Cooked up as a bi-partisan solution with Republican governor Mitt Romney (who now criticizes the Massachusetts plan), this budget-busting scheme is the current inspiration for “Obamacare.”

Despite all of the above, Ted Kennedy’s legacy will continue to shine in the eyes of many. The bar for determining what constitutes a “friend of labor” these days is only inches off the ground. In this period of mourning, let’s remember that political sins are better forgiven than forgotten. The act of forgetting just sets the stage for future failures by labor to hold other allies—including those far less revered -- accountable either.

Steve Early was a Boston-area Kennedy constituent from 1980 to 2009. During that time, he was also a New England telecom strike organizer, national health insurance advocate, and union campaigner against free trade. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor
from Monthly Review Press, and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 08/31/2009 - 10:39



According to just about everybody, Teddy Kennedy represented the “soul” of the Democratic party, which presumably refers to his long-professed concern the poor and the weak. Now that that soul is safely buried, the Dems can move on to the important stuff, like preserving Wall Street power and escalating the war in Afghanistan.

Let’s inspect that soul a little more closely though. I’ve never been inclined to hold my tongue about the recently departed. Well, yes, in personal life, but certainly not public life—especially in the midst of one of these orchestrated rituals of national morning that have become so damned compuslory since Ronald Reagan went on to his reward.

Sure, Teddy had his virtues, especially in contrast to his older brother John, who could wage imperialist war with the best of them, and who’s revered by supply siders as their political ancestor. (Since we’re talking politics, not personality, let’s bracket that little incident where he drunkenly drove a woman to her death, left the scene of the crime, and then dispatched a family laywer to get to the Kopechne family before the press did. One can only imagine what went on at that meeting.) Let’s just look at Teddy’s role in one of the greatest assaults on working class living standards of the modern neoliberal era, transport deregulation.

Once upon a time, working for an airline or driving a truck was a pretty good way to make a living without an advanced degree: union jobs with high pay and decent benefits. A major reason for that is that both industries were federally regulated, with competition kept to a minimum. Starting in the early 1970s, an odd coalition of right-wingers, mainstream economists, liberals, and consumer advocates (including Ralph Nader) began agitating for the deregulation of these industries. All agreed that competition would bring down prices and improve service.

Among the leading agitators was Teddy Kennedy. The right has been noting this in their memorials for “The Lion,” but not the weepy left.

Why was Kennedy such a passionate deregulator? Greg Tarpinian, former director of the Labor Research Association who went on to work for Baby Jimmy Hoffa, once speculated to me that it was because merchant capital always wants to reduce transport costs—the merchant in question being Teddy’s father, Bootlegger Joe. Maybe.

In any case, Kennedy surrounded himself with aides who worked on drafting the deregulatory legislation. Many of them subsequently went on to work for Frank Lorenzo, the ghoulish executive who busted unions at Continental and Eastern airlines in the early 1980s. (Kennedy’s long-time ad agency also did PR work for Lorenzo.)

And what was the result of all this deregulation? Massive downward mobility for workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide earnings data for the airline sector, and its data on trucking only begins in 1990. (Start search for data here.) So for a longer-term view, we have to look at the entire “transportation and warehousing” sector (which is mostly transportation). The graph of that sector’s hourly earnings compared to the entire private sector average is below.

The long slide in transportation wages

On the eve of dereg, hourly wages in transportation and warehousing were about 38% above average, where it had been for years. As soon as regulations were lifted, however, the averages began a long slide that continues to today. That wage premium has now disappeared completely. The pattern in trucking since the data begins in 1990 is pretty similar, going from a 32% premium in 1990 to a 4% discount today. And working conditions have gotten inexpressibly worse—longer hours, fewer benefits, less security. Perhaps there’s a perverse egalitarianism here, the dethronement of a labor aristocracy. Is that the soul of the Democratic party?

Ah, but partisans will respond, dereg has lowered costs, democratizing the formerly elite world of air travel. (Most of us have little to do with trucking, so I’ll leave that aside.) Fares are purportedly way down now that competition rules. Proponents point to their favored measure, real costs per seat mile—the inflation adjusted cost to a passenger of traveling a single mile by air. Those are indeed way down—good news if you’re a seat. If you’re an actual human passenger, however, flying today is a whole lot more challenging than it once was—more advance purchase restrictions, fewer nonstop flights, more transfers. (The last two mean that people are flying greater distances to get from A to B than they did pre-1979, so citing fares per mile is ludicrous.) Those restrictions and other unpleasantries are actually a hidden form of price increase.

The compilers of the Consumer Price Index try heroically to adjust for such quality declines. That’s why the airfare subindex of the CPI has been raced ahead of overall inflation since dereg hit in 1979. Graphed nearby are the two price indexes. Note that before deregulation, the lines move in tandem. Since deregulation, airfares have taken off. The gap would be more impressive if it hadn’t been for the recent decline, a product of the collapse in oil prices in late 2008 and early 2009, compounded by weak demand thanks to the recession.


Since 1979, inflation in airfares has averaged 5.9% a year, vs. 3.8% for the overall CPI. From 1964, when the airfare subindex begins, to 1979, plane travel lagged overall inflation—an annual average of 4.4% for airfares, vs. 5.4% for the headline CPI.

You might think that rising prices and falling wages have been good for industry. Not so for the airlines, which are now mostly a wreck. According to the Air Transport Association, the industry as a whole lost a cumulative $40 billion since 1979. That more than offsets the industry’s total profits between 1947 (when their figures begin) through 1978. In its entire history, the U.S. airline industry has lost a total of $35 billion. Many major names have been through bankruptcy, some more than once.

What a remarkable achivement: a policy that has led to huge losses for both labor and capital. And any tribute to Teddy Kennedy that omits his prominent role in this disaster is incomplete.