Democrats don’t come much more traditional than Teddy Kennedy, the grand man of the Democratic Party. So his endorsement of Barack Obama–implicitly an anti-endorsement of Hillary Clinton–has punch. Endorsements routinely don’t matter much in presidential campaigns–with a few exceptions. A politician who controls a machine–say, a governor–can come in quite handy on Election Day. In this case, Kennedy brings two piping hot dishes to the Obama potluck.
By awarding him the Kennedy Seal of Approval–with Caroline Kennedy (daughter of John) and Representative Patrick Kennedy (son of Ted) chiming in–Kennedy makes it official: Obama is the Next Generation leader of the Democratic Party and, in that role, has a lock on the vision thing. And by pledging to campaign arduously for Obama in the coming days, Kennedy will be assisting Obama’s efforts to reach out to traditional Democratic voters: working-class Dems. Clinton has been faring better among that core demographic chunk of the Democratic electorate. Kennedy is no white knight who will rescue Obama on this front. But if Kennedy pulls a few votes here and there, it could be significant–only if Obama on his own can close the gap between him and Clinton on blue-collar Democrats and Latinos. It is too late for any candidate–or any set of endorsements–to change the fundamentals of the presidential race in time for Supersaturated Tuesday on February 5. And Ted Kennedy on the campaign trail is no match for Hillary Clinton’s hit man: her husband. Yet any bit of Kennedy magic dust the Massachusetts senator sprinkles for Obama can only help.
Kennedy’s endorsement speech–held before an enthusiastic crowd at an auditorium at American University–was a roar. He noted that Clinton and John Edwards were fine people and his friends. “But I believe,” he said, “there is one candidate who has extraordinary gifts of leadership and character, matched to the extraordinary demands of this moment in history.” He completely adopted Obama’s own arguments: “He is a leader who sees the world clearly without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in, without demonizing those who hold a different view.” That last line, an echo of a remark Obama made on Saturday night after winning the South Carolina primary, was a dig at the Clinton camp.
Other digs followed: “We know the true record of Barack Obama. There is the courage he showed when so many others were silent or simply went along. From the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth.” The Clinton crew has been trying to undermine Obama’s natural advantage on the war. (He opposed voting for it: she did not.) Kennedy was calling them out on this matter and essentially telling them to shut up.
And then Kennedy passed the torch:
With Barack Obama, there is a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign–a campaign not just about himself, but about all of us. A campaign about the country we will become, if we can rise above the old politics that parses us into separate groups and puts us at odds with one another.
I remember another such time, in the 1960s, when I came to the Senate at the age of 30. We had a new president who inspired the nation, especially the young, to seek a new frontier. Those inspired young people marched, sat in at lunch counters, protested the war in Vietnam and served honorably in that war even when they opposed it.
Obama can be the new Kennedy–John or Robert, take your pick. Who says so? Their brother. Such rhetoric might be easily dismissed by the cynical, but it is heady stuff. And Kennedy probably did not make the decision to anoint Obama in this manner lightly. He compared Obama to Clinton and found one inspiring, the other merely commendable. “What counts in our leadership,” Kennedy thundered, “is not the length of years in Washington, but the reach of our vision, the strength of our beliefs, and that rare quality of mind and spirit that can call forth the best in our country and our people. With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion.”
Kennedy’s red-hot endorsement can be read as something of a pushback to the Clinton gang’s assault on the junior senator from Illinois. “Let us reject the counsels of doubt and calculation,” Kennedy said loudly before the American University crowd. Whose doubt and calculation? The Clintons’, of course. And he was not indirect:
There was another time, when another young candidate was running for President and challenging America to cross a New Frontier. He faced public criticism from the preceding Democratic President, who was widely respected in the party. Harry Truman said we needed “someone with greater experience”—and added: “May I urge you to be patient.” And John Kennedy replied: “The world is changing. The old ways will not do…It is time for a new generation of leadership.” So it is with Barack Obama.
In other words, take that Bill Clinton! Truman was wrong about JFK, and you’re wrong about BHO. Kennedy did not step over any line in his speech. But while handing the family crown to a new prince, he was chastising the old king–perhaps warning the Clinton bunch it ought not go too far.
Kennedy, the old liberal lion, might not be able to hand-deliver many votes to Obama. But he can bellow on his behalf and provide a countervailing force to the former president, who has emerged as Obama’s detractor-in-chief. Kennedy and his son and niece have bolstered Obama’s narrative of change and vision. The question is whether Obama has sufficient time to put this anointment to full use.