Teddy Kennedy was known as the liberal lion of the US Senate. But in fact, he hadn't roared in decades. Even though his funeral today marks the end of the Kennedy family's political saga, Kennedy liberalism, the brand of Left-wing politics with which the family was identified, died years ago.
Kennedy, who served as a senator from the Left-wing state of Massachusetts for 46 years, supported Barack Obama in last year's Democratic primaries in the hope that an Obama presidency would lift Washington to new heights of liberal progress, as Franklin Roosevelt had during the Depression and John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did in the 1960s. He was wrong. A liberal president, and lopsided liberal Democratic majorities in the Senate and House, had indeed arrived. But the country, center-Right for the past 30 years, hadn't changed.
Even before the senator's death from a brain tumor, at the age of 77, his hopes of a liberal revival had been dispelled. He had already been disappointed by the moderate Democratic policies during Bill Clinton's presidency in the 1990s – hence his endorsement of Obama over Hillary Clinton, which created a rift that never healed (after Kennedy's death, the Clintons were among the last prominent figures to offer their condolences). Under Obama, Kennedy's senate committee passed a health-care reform measure with his liberal stamp on it, his aides having written its provisions. But its chances of being enacted, even if renamed the Kennedy Health Care Reform Act, are poor.
The same is true for much of Obama's agenda. The Kennedy bill is fine with the President, as are other suggested versions of health-care reform that would increase spending, tighten the regulation of insurers and give the government in Washington a bigger role. But the public has taken a different view. Rather than embrace the liberalism of Kennedy and Obama, a growing majority of Americans have soured on its vision of greater spending, higher taxes, more government control of corporations, sharp limits on carbon emissions, support for the unions, and stiffer regulation of Wall Street, banks and hedge funds.
The trend was foreshadowed on election day itself: in exit polls, 34 per cent of voters identified themselves as conservatives, 22 per cent as liberals, and 44 per cent as moderates. As the Obama presidency settled in, the trend accelerated. In late spring, a poll showed conservatives prevailing over liberals, 40 per cent to 20 per cent. By summer, 39 per cent of Americans said they were growing more conservative. Obama's popularity dropped precipitously.
As it turned out, the Democratic victory in 2008 had mostly been the result of distaste for the Republicans, seen as responsible for the George Bush presidency, the war in Iraq, and the economic collapse six weeks before the election. Now, seven months into Obama's White House term, voters are showing, at least in opinion surveys, an increasing preference for Republicans.
Of course, if Obama follows Kennedy's path, he will retain the affection of one important group until the end: the press corps. The senator's death was treated in the media as the tragic loss of an irreplaceable leader of the nation. One journalist reported that on Martha's Vineyard, where Kennedy took his holidays in the summer, "it feels a bit like 9/11… end-of-summer weather is achingly beautiful but the mood is melancholy because of Teddy."
The cheerleaders were mourning not just a man, but a political philosophy. Kennedy's heyday was the 1960s and 1970s, the years of liberal ascendancy. His brother was finishing his second year as president when Teddy was elected, at 32, to fill his former Senate seat. He was thought by many to be unqualified for the job, but soon became a deft deal-maker. In 1965, he played an important role in loosening America's immigration laws, allowing millions of non-Europeans to enter. He was also a strong backer of historic health-care reforms – the introduction of Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor – that were enacted that year.
His passion for these issues remained intact – but the country changed around him. In 2007, Kennedy was the key Democrat supporter of immigration reforms that would have let 12 million illegal immigrants become full-fledged citizens. This time, however, the bill faced angry grassroots opposition, and failed. The same was true for health care. Liberals in the US have been promoting national health insurance since Harry Truman was president in the 1940s. Yet Kennedy's backing – deemed critical – wasn't enough to stop the loss of support for "ObamaCare".
Even Kennedy's last major legislative achievement was bittersweet. In 2001, he joined forces with President Bush to sponsor an education reform measure that required schoolchildren to take tests. The law, called "No Child Left Behind", was opposed by many liberals, including the teachers' unions, and Kennedy later regretted his sponsorship of it. Indeed, many of his earlier accomplishments had also helped the conservative cause. In the 1970s, he helped deregulate airlines and railroads, now seen as conservative triumphs. Moreover, his run for the presidency in 1980 – which was derailed after the accident in Chappaquiddick re-emerged as an issue – weakened Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent, and helped Ronald Reagan win the White House.
Obama has expressed admiration for Reagan's skill as a transformational leader. But Reagan campaigned as a conservative, then governed as one. Obama ran as a centrist, eager to end partisanship and ideological polarisation in Washington. But he's governed as a Kennedy liberal, and that's why he's in trouble.
The public likes Obama, but only a minority (mainly white liberals and African-Americans) favor his plans to enlarge the size and scope of the federal government. Americans, while not anti-government, are deeply suspicious of Washington. They prefer to decentralize power among states and localities. And they balk at tax rises and surges in spending.
As he barnstorms outside Washington, Obama has rubbed many up the wrong way. He has accused doctors of gouging; Americans love their doctors. He had denounced what he calls "the business mentality"; Americans are overwhelmingly pro-business.
So Obama will have to make a choice: stick with the liberalism of Kennedy, or move to the center, as Clinton did after the Republican landslide in 1994. Clinton revived his presidency, won approval for welfare reform, was re-elected, and warded off impeachment.
Kennedy and other liberals fumed at his apostasy, and that bloc is determined to keep the President from "pulling a Clinton". But if Obama sides with them, he's likely to strengthen the growing coalition against him, which has already hindered his health-care, energy, and immigration initiatives.
Already, the Democrats are trailing in two key races for governor this year. Strategists in both parties predict sizeable gains for Republicans in next year's congressional elections. So retreat to the centre may be Obama's best hope. Teddy Kennedy wouldn't agree – but then he never made it to the presidency.