Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why Chappaquiddick Had Next To Nothing To Do With Ted Kennedy Never Getting Elected President

In last week's obituaries and commentary on Ted Kennedy, I often saw it said that Chappaquiddick ended Ted's presidential ambitions. Ted's conduct at Chappaquiddick is far more reprehensible than commonly understood; the issue isn't that he swam away and didn't rescue her, but that the girl suffocated to death in the car for hours (that's right, she didn't drown, she suffocated several hours after the car landed in the water, eventually consuming all the oxygen that was left inside the car) while Ted huddled with his lawyers and tried to figure out what lies to tell. If he had just called the police, the woman would have lived. By the time he eventually went to the police, it was the next morning and her body had already been fished out of the car. It's fairly obvious what really happened; in an attempt to avoid taking a drunken driving rap and conceal what he was up to with his passenger, he dillied and dallied and let a woman die. Once he realized he'd be in an even bigger mess if he didn't admit he was the driver, he went to the police. That said, as criminal and callous as Ted's actions really were, they weren't what kept him from the White House. Ted's not wanting to be President kept Ted from the White House.

Let's first take up the one presidential campaign that Ted did run, a primary race against the incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter. Those who claim that Chappaquiddick was the determining factor in Ted's defeat would have you believe not only that Ted could have actually defeated Carter, a sitting President, in the primaries if not for Chappaquiddick - a feat which has never been accomplished in modern American politics, and would've been quite tough even if Ted weren't a philandering alcoholic on account of Carter's having such a strong base in the South - but that he would have then gone on to defeat Ronald Reagan. Just imagine, for a second, a Ted-Reagan debate. Reagan, all optimism, warmth and slickness, and Ted, all indignant and not particularly articulate bluster. It wouldn't have gone well. Such an outcome would also mean that in 1980, Americans would have rejected Carter for a politician who thought that Carter's problem was that he wasn't liberal enough. Perhaps it's possible that the only reason Reagan beat Carter was because of how much of a fuck-up Carter personally was, but it's hard to believe that the nation was really in the mood in 1980 to replace Carter with a man farther to his left. Ted also wouldn't have had the one thing going for him that Carter did have - the argument that, as President, he was vastly more experienced than Reagan, not to mention vastly more intelligent. I'd give Ted, sans Chappaquiddick, about a 10% chance of being elected President in 1980. At best.

Then there's the argument that if not for Chappaquiddick, Ted would've ran against Nixon in 1972. Sure, he may well have. But recall that in 1972, Nixon won 49 states and 61% of the vote. Some of that, yes, was due to what a poor candidate his opponent, George McGovern, was. But even assuming that Ted would've been a much stronger candidate - and all acounts of his one presidential campaign indicate that outside of the comforts of Massachusetts he was something of a bumbler on the trail - is it really possible that the face on the ticket could've made that big a difference? The difference between winning only one state and winning the whole thing? Clearly Nixon was pretty popular in November 1972. Chances of Ted being elected President in 1972 sans Chappaquiddick: 10%.

Then there are all the races that Ted didn't run but should have, and didn't not run because of Chappaquiddick but because, for whatever reason, he didn't feel like it. 1976 might have been Ted's best chance, even with Chappaquiddick. Had he ran that year, wouldn't he very possibly have beaten an unknown Jimmy Carter in the primaries, and gone on to knock off Gerald Ford? Sure, it's true that immediately after Watergate, the nation was probably looking for a squeaky-clean guy, so, if Ted had run, one could certainly argue that Chappaquiddick would've defeated him, whereas, if not for Chappaquiddick, he would've been the 1976 favorite. Then again, even without Chappaquiddick, Ted was never what you'd call a squeaky-clean guy. Here you have to say that Ted's not really wanting it enough to run until a year when he had no chance was what kept him from the White House. Another case in point is 1968. After his brother got shot, party leaders tried to make Ted the candidate - but Ted wouldn't do it, one year prior to Chappaquiddick. Had he been nominated, he would've had a good shot at beating Nixon on a wave of slain Kennedy emotion. Then there's 1988, a race that Ted bizarrely dropped out of three years in advance, announcing his decision to not run in 1985. Had he run, even with Chappaquiddick, there's no doubt that he would've beaten Dukakis (the lamest presidential candidate of my lifetime) and Dick Gephardt in the primaries. Whether he would've beaten Bush's father is probably a different story. Though he would've ran a better race, Ted was a pretty divisive figure and it's doubtful that the country would've taken such a big lurch to the left after 8 years of Reagan.

Finally, there's the election that no one ever talks about in connection to Ted, 1992. Suppose an older and wiser Ted - then only 60, far from too old - took on Bill Clinton in the primaries. Hard to say who would win there, but both were equally flawed characters so Chappaquiddick wouldn't have been that big a problem. Had Ted won the nomination, he then would have been elected President. Sure, he wasn't Clinton's equal as a campaigner, but (a) Bush was really unpopular and (b) Clinton brought a lot of deficits to the table that Ted lacked (youth, inexperience, being the governor of a state that was last in virtually everything). Had Ted won in '92, America would be a very different place today. Welfare reform never would've happened, and healthcare reform might well have. The Reagan tax cuts could've been rolled back to a far greater extent than they were under Clinton. We wouldn't have had a Democratic President who bragged in his inaugural that "the era of big government is over." And, without a Monica, and, with, perhaps, Clinton himself as Vice President, 2000 might very well have gone entirely differently. Which would mean no Iraq (and very likely no Obama). It was, it seems, Ted's calculation that he could do more good in the Senate, and that judgment has been commended by many an obituarist. But I wonder - if I were a liberal - whether I wouldn't look less fondly on Ted for refusing to take Clinton on in 1992.

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