Carter, Kennedy and Brown
Jude Wanniski
July, 1979

 

Executive Summary: The collapse of President Carter's public standing, with so little time to reverse the economic and energy policies that have driven him down in public esteem, has reduced his chances of re-election to the vanishing point. Senator Kennedy does well in the polls, partly because the electorate does not yet perceive that his policies are identical to Carter's, both drawing their policy framework from the same eastern liberal theoreticians. Kennedy could get the nomination, but is not likely to challenge Carter for it, which would mean he would have a hostile incumbent President at his back, lose the South, West, and Plains states and the general election. Jerry Brown's prospects are far brighter than conventional wisdom suggests, his flexibility, termed "flakiness" by the White House, having permitted him to break with the bankrupt liberal ideologies. The 1980 advantage is still with the Republicans, given the worldwide ideological drift toward economic incentive systems, but the race for the GOP nomination has not yet crystallized.

Carter, Kennedy and Brown

The continuing decline of President Carter's public standing is the central fact that dominates all presidential politics. The New York Times/CBS News Poll found Carter's overall approval rating dropping to a new low of 30 percent in early June against 42 percent in March. Gallup finds only 23 percent of Democrats want him to be the party's nominee in 1980f against 52 percent for Senator Kennedy and 8 percent for Governor Brown of California. The chances of Jimmy Carter's re-election in 1980 have now dropped toward the vanishing point, and this calculation has now given pause to all the presidential contenders in both parties. Political analysis has suddenly become extremely difficult given the introduction to the large number of variables that must be juggled as a result of the Carter collapse.

This is no doubt the big reason why the Republican field is so quiet, standing aside for the moment and watching in fascination the struggle between the President and Teddy Kennedy. Jerry Brown, too, has adopted a low profile for the moment. He, like the Republicans, has far more to gain by allowing the Carter-Kennedy bloodletting to play itself out than from anything he could gain by competing for national attention while it lasts. There is a temptation to think that Kennedy's standing in the polls points to the inevitability of his nomination, if not election as President in 1980. But in one sense, Kennedy is a captive of his popularity in the polls, for it reduces his ability to resist pressures from the party's liberal wing, which he commands, to challenge and bring down the incumbent Democratic President.

If politics were simple, Kennedy could announce his complete support of the President and give every sign of discouraging his aggressive supporters. Carter would not then feel that his political collapse was being hastened, if not engineered, by the Kennedy wing. Kennedy would then be able to expect genuine support from Carter on that future day, before or after the New Hampshire primary, when Carter's defeat by either Jerry Brown or the GOP nominee appeared inevitable.

This is a checkers game, though, and we are into a three-dimensional chess game. Credible Kennedy support of the President would bolster the Brown campaign by pushing the anyone-but-Carter Democrats in his direction. It would also invite the other contenders into the field Senator Moynihan or New York's Governor Carey who would dilute Kennedy's current sense of control. Senator Moynihan's recent remark that President Carter is now governing at the "sufferance" of Senator Kennedy is a pithy summary of the current, conventional wisdom.

All this has led Kennedy into an awkward ambivalence, toying with Carter as one would with a butterfly on a pin. He expects to support Carter and Carter to be re-elected, but if Carter chooses not to run, he expects to run and would expect to win. Meanwhile he takes every opportunity to offer light-hearted support to his dump-Carter friends. And the President seems all the more helpless with his remark of studied bravado, "I'll whip his ass." The advantage seems with Kennedy, but what kind of advantage would that be if President Carter comes to believe he has been destroyed by Kennedy, and Kennedy must run against the Republican nominee with a hostile Democrat in the White House through Election Day? It must be assumed that Kennedy and his most sober advisors realize they must walk a very fine line, as easy as it might be for them to wrest the nomination from Carter, only to lose the general election and with it the Kennedy "mystique." This involves the most careful calculation, because the Kennedy aura is about the only remaining asset possessed by the near-bankrupt Eastern Liberal Establishment. Is this the right time to gamble this asset, or is the game even worth the candle?

This "liberal establishment," which for purposes of simplicity we can say is embodied in The New York Times, knows better than anyone else what it has in Senator Kennedy. Quite unlike John F. Kennedy, who won the 1960 Democratic nomination in spite of the liberal theologians and who remained at arm's length from them during his 1,000 days, Edward M. Kennedy is a creature of the theologians. They know that insofar as ideas translate into policy, Jimmy Carter is Teddy Kennedy without mystique. The liberal problem with Kennedy is not entirely that he carries Chappaquiddick on his back, but the fact that there is no substantive difference between him and Carter. Without a single notable exception, the President has done the precise bidding of the party's intellectual cadre, from the moment he named Walter Mondale as his running mate. Had Kennedy, not Carter, been elected in 1976, there is no reason to believe his approval rating would be any higher that 30 percent, and one must wonder whether Kennedy would have borne up as well as Carter has in the heat of the Oval Office. This Carter ability to withstand pressure, perhaps best exemplified by the durability of his Cabinet, is the great advantage Carter would have over Kennedy in a head-on clash over the nomination. The liberal establishment has never been comfortable about this aspect of a Kennedy candidacy, and it is only since the Senator sprouted gray hair at his temples that the Times has lengthened its leash on him.

In 1974, just as the Kennedy crowd was frisking about, stirring up discussion about a 1976 run, the Times fired a devastating shot across his bow in a Sunday magazine article by Robert Sherrill, entitled "Chappaquiddick Plus 5." The piece, without a trace of rationalization for Kennedy's behavior at Chappaquiddick, amounted to a political scourging of him by the Times, and within a matter of days Kennedy publicly ended speculation that he would be a contender.

We now approach the 10th anniversary of Chappaquiddick, on July 18, but by now the Times observance in its Sunday magazine is a horse of a slightly different color. In an obvious attempt to set the tone for the Big Media commentary that would naturally fall around July 18, the Times jumped the gun by a month, with a two-part series June 17 and 24 "The Kennedy Mystique." The carefully crafted article, by Anne Taylor Fleming, is a far cry from the Sherrill piece of 1974. This is not a shot across the bow but it is not yet the firing of a starting pistol. Rather, the Times is testing the wind, to see how far a rationalized view of Kennedy can be pressed upon the public. It is all plain spoken, upfront. Crisp note is made of the Kennedy "booze and broads," Joan's drift into alcoholism, Ted's separation from Joan, Ted's cheating at Harvard, a matter-of-fact replay of Chappaquiddick. But throughout there is the impression that all the bad stuff is over and done with, that this is a new man with gray hair at his temples. It is carefully noted that Ted takes Joan to dinner when he goes to Boston. It is carefully noted that he does not drink alone anymore. Adultery is given an historical rationale: "'Marriage is a contract for life,' Joe Kennedy would say in front of his children. It was just different there were women to marry and women to lie down with, and the women his sons would do that with later when they were Senators, and one a President, and finally legends those women were lying down with history and everybody involved knew that."

Chappaquiddick is now placed in the context of grief, flowing from the June, 1968 assassination of his brother Bobby. "He spent a lot of the summer on his boat at the Cape. People came and went, friends, women, one after the other. He could not share his mourning with his wife. What solace he took, one friend said, was from "the freneticism of booze and sex. Afterward, there were times of great guilt."

The articles can be taken as a message from the Liberal theologians to the faithful: "Don't think there aren't any problems with a Kennedy candidacy. There are plenty. Here is how they look presented in the best possible light. Please understand if we must decide it is not yet the time to fire the Kennedy bolt."

Kennedy's public standing in the polls, after all, would likely undergo considerable erosion during a formal campaign. The electorate still remembers John Kennedy as the last successful President, both in domestic and foreign policy, and has not yet perceived that Teddy Kennedy's ideological framework is not his brother's, but is identical to Jimmy Carter's. It is only in the national campaign itself that the national electorate devotes the time and intellectual resources necessary to screen the candidates and their programs. Unless Kennedy broke with the liberal agenda, it is difficult to see how he could persuade the electorate that his leadership would be more effective than Carter's.

By this analysis, it is highly unlikely that Kennedy will go beyond positioning himself for 1984, unless Carter simply withdraws in the face of defeat by Governor Brown and gives his blessing to Kennedy. The numbers of the Electoral College are a key to these realities for Kennedy. If he brings down Carter, he must assume the loss of the South to the Republican nominee, who then need only add the West and the Plains states, including California, to get to the required 270 mark. This gives Kennedy the entire Northeast, including Vermont and New Hampshire, and Ohio and Illinois. It is simply too risky for the Liberal Establishment to fire Kennedy into those numbers, with a hostile Carter still in the White House, especially considering the fact that Carter has been dutifully following the script that has been written for him.

There is, though, Jerry Brown, who would by this analysis turn out to be the most formidable candidate the Democrats could field in 1980. He would surely take California against any Republican, including Reagan, and take the Northeast and Lake states against Reagan or Connally. And Brown is so unorthodox a Democrat, that he could topple Carter and still have a shot at winning some of the Southern and border states. Indeed, it is now easier to imagine Brown being elected President in 1980 than it is either Carter or Kennedy.

The main ingredient in setting Brown apart from Carter or Kennedy is his willingness, even eagerness to depart from the liberal orthodoxy. If 1980 is a year in which the American electorate is prepared for a "changing of the Guard," from old to young in an intellectual sense as it was in 1960, Brown could be in the right place at the right time. The only contender of either party under 45 years of age, his appeal is almost more generational than it is ideological. He can't be called a "liberal" or "conservative" as the terms are broadly understood, which is why any liberal or conservative "in the know," especially along the Eastern Seaboard, identifies Brown as a "flake."

Brown does resist characterization except insofar as he is the most thoroughgoing "democrat" in the field, which is the intellectual mechanism that permitted him to shift so smoothly to ardent support of Proposition 13 from aggressive opposition. "The first job of a politician is to get re-elected," says Brown, which puts him in the mainstream of Democratic politicians, but beyond the sure grasp of the party theoreticians, who now consider him objectionable because he is unreliable. He is now not only a politician who will not stand still, but who is also galloping away from the liberal agenda. As long as he is in a transition phase, from a Club-of-Rome, Small-is-Beautiful outlook to one of international economic growth, he will be inviting the "flaky" and "two-faced" epithets. But he is moving in popular directions, and if his views solidify by New Hampshire, his transitional "flakiness" will be forgotten.

This is a fairly big "if," however. His Great Leap Forward in 1978 was to a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, which won him a lot of attention but is not the kind of a horse that can go the distance. Nor has he given much attention to foreign affairs and defense policy, and his views on disarmament seem quaint, contributing to the opinion within the Conservative Establishment that he is a "flake." Still and all, Brown's disarming breeziness, his nose for public opinion, and his youthful flexibility are the qualities that showed in his late primary races against Carter in 1976. There is now no reason to think Brown could not repeat those victories, given the four years he has under his belt, a triumphant re-election in 1978 along with his political gymnastics over Proposition 13, and Carter's showing as President. In a three-way race in New Hampshire, with Carter and Kennedy representing the liberal orthodoxy and Brown a new wave, it's possible to imagine a Brown victory with the President placing third.

There are few analysts who would agree with the opening assumption that Carter's re-election chances have "dropped to the vanishing point." But unless the President changes his policies, foreign and domestic, to a degree that would characterize him as a flake, there is nothing in the bag of incumbency that can save him. If he does a turn on tax and energy policies dramatic enough to bring quick results, he will simply inflame the liberal theologians and the Kennedy bolt will be fired. If he sticks to his present course, balancing the budget via inflation and energy taxes, he will be duck soup for the California governor. And in this analysis, remember, we have not even discussed the possibilities of Carter against the Republican field, should the President somehow manage to retain the Democratic nomination.

It is conventional, and correct, to observe that the GOP array of candidates is as broad as it is because there is no overpowering candidate who can clear the field merely by his presence. But the field is also big because there is a widespread sense that the issue drift, worldwide, will favor a Republican victory in 1980. The strong showing of the GOP in the 1978 congressional races, especially in the Senate, followed by conservative victories in Britain and Canada, point the way to a growth-oriented Republican presidential win next year.

Any of the several top Republican candidates can still emerge from the pack and win. Yes, Reagan is out in front in the backstretch, with Connally and Baker on his heels. But it's too soon to say he has it locked up, as some do, and too soon to say his age will slow him in the homestretch, as some do. Nor are George Bush, Bob Dole and Phil Crane as far back as many of the expert handicappers say, already counted out. The race has not crystallized yet. It may take a month or two before it is ready for serious, meaningful analysis.