I am a bit surprised, and even a little embarrassed to admit it, but I learned something the other day from our sometime problem-child, elder-Catholic-statesman, Senator Edward Kennedy.
Learned may be a slight exaggeration: Was reminded of? Realized once again? Had it more deeply brought home to me? Whatever the right subjective description, the objective fact is that Kennedy understands that politics is, in the end, all about “the vision thing,” and isn’t afraid to say so in the most naked terms.
I happened to hear Kennedy on National Public Radio revving up the campaign of some little-known Democratic candidate for Congress. Whatever the merits of the person in question, Kennedy shrewdly put the whole effort to elect him in terms of the need to recapture the House and Senate from the Republicans. In the well-worked tradition of Irish union leaders and Democratic rhetoricians, Kennedy ascended through a series of emotional pleas about the big picture, concluding with an only slightly clichéd pitch to the crowd to “help turn this country around.”
This column is going to press before either party’s nominating convention, so there may be some surprises in August that render my whole argument wrong. If so, I’ll recant (I’ll also be one of the most surprised people in America). But whatever self-serving positions the presidential candidates assume, as Kennedy knows, there continues to be an ideological struggle in the United States that did not end with the Cold War. And not only is that not a bad thing, it would be better for us all if, as in Kennedy’s case, we could have it all out in the open.
For make no mistake, the first thing a logical mind will want to know when someone talks about “turning the country around” is: “From what to what?” I disagree with Senator Kennedy about virtually every serious issue in the political arena today. We may count on him to continue funding and expanding abortion, to see the humaneness of “assisted suicide,” to endorse gay marriage, to demand compassion toward the poor in ways I believe are destroying poor families. But unlike Clinton and many other Democratic and Republican operators, Kennedy has a fairly concrete notion of the America he wants.
My liberal friend and Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne recently has argued that Clinton is trying to perform a difficult balancing act, combining the old New Deal social coalition with the current emphasis on family values. Dionne sees this as crucial to the Democrats’ viability as a political party. The near universal success of conservatism means that no presidential candidate can, for the moment, run as a liberal.
One of the frustrating dimensions of this election is that Clinton reads the conservative script better than the Republicans. Bob Dole could not hold up his half in any large-minded debate. Just try to imagine Dole stirring the troops to “help turn this country around.” Dole’s idea of bold new moves is to shift sharply toward Democratic positions that the Democrats themselves, except for ideological warriors like Kennedy, are being quite careful to fudge. A visionary Dole is about as likely as a George Bush who could speak in grammatically parseable sentences.
The left wing of the Democratic Party, however, waits coolly in the wings. The Clintons have leftish inclinations but subordinate them to personal ambition. The Kennedys, however, are in it for the long haul. They don’t much pander after mere power. They really believe that the conservative gains of the ’80s and ’90s are a retrograde force in history and politics.
Hillary Clinton once used the rhetoric about the “Decade of Greed,” while using that decade in real life to do quite well personally. The more ideological Democrats, who may benefit from Clinton’s forked coattails, are after far bigger game than a $100,000 deal here and a small-time S&L scam there.
For the most part, they will be trying to fly under the ideological radar this November. But much is at stake. A Democratic Congress coupled with a Bill Clinton with no more elections to anticipate may turn this country around in ways that, conservative fin-de-siecle dominance notwithstanding, will surprise us all. In his recent book, The Quest for God, Paul Johnson remarks that totalitarianism of a purely political kind is dead, but that the eugenic totalitarianism of the West—with its inexorable march toward abortion, euthanasia, and death—will be our main challenge in the coming century. If some people get a chance to turn this country around in November, we may be well into the next millennium before our heads stop spinning.