What Might Have Been ... [UPDATED]
My opinion of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy is well known to anyone who has read this blog for a number of years.
But I do feel very sad at the man's passing. Not for who and what he was, but for who and what he might have been. Ted Kennedy was the only man in the Senate who could have assured that history turned out differently with regard to abortion. Just imagine if he had followed the example of his sister Eunice and, in addition to being a tireless defender of the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the downtrodden, he had also remained true to his previously held pro-life stance and been a tireless defender of the least of the least of these - the unborn.
He is the only person who could have single-handedly stopped in its tracks the Democratic Party's slide to pro-abort-party-of-death status. He could have been an old-time Catholic liberal - liberal on economic and civil rights issues, but conservative (or at least "traditional") on social and cultural issues. Kennedy was the only person on the left with the stature to make being a pro-life liberal a viable, if not the outright majority, position in the Democratic Party.
Instead, he chose to take the easy route and go with the liberal pro-abort flow, becoming one of the most vocal advocates for unrestricted abortion on Capitol Hill. He could have changed history for the better, instead of changing it for the worse (Roe v. Wade would be history today but for Kennedy's diabolical and demogogic slander of "Judge Bork's America", which set the tone for the confirmation hearings that would defeat Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court and lead, ultimately, to the appointment of Justice Anthony Kennedy (no relation), whose last-minute vote switch in the Casey decision preserved Roe for at least another generation).
What a travesty for Sen. Kennedy, for the Democratic Party, for America, for the Catholic Church, and, of course, for the unborn.
I mourn for the man - and the America - that might have been.
Fr. Raymond de Souza has similar thoughts today at National Catholic Register:
In death Sen. Edward M. Kennedy hardly needs his biography recalled. His life could hardly have been more chronicled. What is more interesting to ask, especially in light of the Catholic faith to which he was so devoted — a family priest was at his bedside when he died — is what life he might have led and how American politics might have been different.(emphasis added)
What Might Have Been
A broader question is what might have become of American politics if Kennedy has chosen a different path.
By the early ’70s, Richard Nixon had won two presidential elections — the second one the greatest landslide in history — by fashioning a coalition that included cultural conservatives in large numbers. The lifestyle libertinism of the 1960s’ movements which coalesced behind George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 proved culturally influential but a political liability. After McGovern’s loss and, a few months later, the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, it was still an open question about which direction the Democratic Party would go. Throughout the 1970s, many of the key Democratic leaders were pro-life, as was Kennedy himself up until the Roe decision. Had Kennedy resisted the culturally liberal trends in the Democratic Party, what might have been?
Kennedy’s family legacy, his impregnable position in Massachusetts (he won more than 60% of the vote the year after Chappaquiddick) and his national prominence rendered him immune from the pressures other politicians had to face. He could always choose his own path. Had he chosen to remain economically liberal but culturally conservative, he would have prevented the Democratic Party from embracing the orthodoxy of the unlimited abortion license. Had he remained pro-life the Democratic Party would have had to make place for other pro-life politicians. Had he remained pro-life many others — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson — would not have abandoned their pro-life positions as the price to be paid for national ambition.
In the 1970s, it was not clear that the Republican Party would become largely pro-life. Party leaders, including Nixon, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, George Bush and even Ronald Reagan, favored liberalizing abortion laws. The GOP moved toward a pro-life position in response to the Democratic Party moving in the opposite direction. It was politically advantageous, and it was Kennedy who permitted that advantage to be conceded. By the 1980s what are now called “values voters” were a critical part of Reagan’s coalition. Many of the Reagan Democrats were those who were with Kennedy on economics but could not follow him on abortion and related cultural issues.
The Supreme Court decision on abortion made judicial appointments more politically salient, but confirmations remained largely pro forma affairs — Reagan’s first two appointments were confirmed without a single dissenting vote. But in 1987 Kennedy led the opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork, turning the confirmation process into a brutal, partisan battle. The verb “borking” entered the political lexicon to describe this ugly new version of cultural politics. Democrats would later bitterly complain about Republican tactics on “values,” but it was Kennedy’s prestige that made such politics acceptable.
The ‘Ted Kennedy Problem’
It was two of Kennedy’s fellow Massachusetts politicians who would reap most directly what Kennedy had sown. Both Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004 were defeated in campaigns in which values — not economics, not competence, not even war — were the dominant issues. Religious observance had become the most important predictor of voting behavior. Culture had become a partisan issue. Kennedy’s embrace of moral libertinism facilitated all that. Had he chosen differently he could have stopped the culture wars before they started. Few other politicians ever have the influence to make such a consequential decision.
Indeed, had Kennedy remained pro-life — along with his positions on immigration, health care, poverty, war and peace — he would have entered his senior years as the great Catholic legislator in terms of the welfare state, health care, big government, the peace agenda and the right to life. Remember the famous pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops on defense policy and the economy in the 1980s? They were both well to the left politically, easily in Ted Kennedy territory. If only he had remained pro-life, he would have been the poster boy of the American bishops for a generation.
He didn’t, and so the final five years of his life were marked by an intense and painful debate about how the American bishops should deal with what could suitably be called their “Ted Kennedy problem” — what to do about Catholic politicians who promote abortion rights? Where Kennedy went 30 years ago, many followed. The old lion will be laid to rest as one of the most consequential public figures of his time. Those consequences have been difficult for the Church. That is well known. They have been also difficult for his party, even if the Democrats send him off with a full-throated roar.
UPDATE #2 (28 August)
Kevin J. Jones relates a story indicative of the deleterious effects Sen. Kennedy's abortion stance has had on the pro-life movement within his own party:
I recently talked to a pro-life Democratic veteran of my city’s politics. He told me how much his political career has been hamstrung because he won’t go over to the pro-choice side.
The conversation made me realize that Democrats who became pro-choice did not simply undergo a change of opinion. They became part of the political network which would otherwise suppress them. And they then aided in the suppression of their former comrades.
Who was the last Massachusetts pro-life Democrat Sen. Kennedy threw his weight behind? Since his change of view, when has he supported a pro-life Democrat in a primary race against a pro-choice Democrat?
I fear Kennedy helped strangle the careers of many pro-life Democrats in his state and his national party. Am I wrong?
UPDATE #3 (31 August)
Ross Douthat: "A Different Kind of Liberal"
Only 13 days separated the passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, from the death of her brother Ted last week. But amid the wall-to-wall coverage and the stream of retrospectives for the senior senator from Massachusetts, it was easy to forget that he wasn’t the only famous Kennedy sibling to enter eternity this month.(Hat tip: The Cranky Conservative)
What the siblings shared — in addition to the grace, rare among Kennedys, of a ripe old age and a peaceful death — was a passionate liberalism and an abiding Roman Catholic faith. These two commitments were intertwined: Ted Kennedy’s tireless efforts on issues like health care, education and immigration were explicitly rooted in Catholic social teaching, and so was his sister’s lifelong labor on behalf of the physically and mentally impaired.
What separated them was abortion.
Along with her husband, Sargent Shriver, Eunice belonged to America’s dwindling population of outspoken pro-life liberals. Like her church, she saw a continuity, rather than a contradiction, between championing the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed and protecting unborn human life.
Her brother took a different path. Not at first: In 1971, in a letter to a voter that abortion opponents would have many opportunities to quote, he declared that “wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.” But like many other Catholic liberals, from Joseph Biden to Dennis Kucinich, he moved leftward with his party, becoming a down-the-line supporter of abortion rights, with a voting record that brooked no compromise on the issue.
For abortion opponents, cruel ironies abounded in this sibling disagreement. Because of Eunice Shriver’s work with the developmentally disabled, a group of Americans who had once been marginalized and hidden away — or lobotomized, like her sister Rosemary — was ushered closer to full participation in ordinary human life. But because of laws that her brother unstintingly supported, that same group was ushered out again: the abortion rate for fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome, for instance, is estimated to be as high as 90 percent.
In 1992, Eunice participated in the last significant effort to push the Democratic Party away from abortion on demand, petitioning her party’s convention to consider “a new understanding” of the issue, “one that does not pit mother against child,” but instead seeks “policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers and their children, both before and after birth.” That same summer, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court upheld a near-absolute right to terminate a pregnancy — a decision made possible by her brother’s demagogic assault on Robert Bork five years earlier, which helped doom Bork’s nomination to the court.
At times, Ted Kennedy’s fervor on abortion felt like an extended apology to his party’s feminists for the way the men of his dynasty behaved in private. Eunice, by contrast, had nothing to apologize for. She knew what patriarchy meant: she was born into a household out of “Mad Men,” where the father paraded his mistress around his family, the sons were groomed for high office, and the daughters were expected to marry well, rear children and suffer silently. And she transcended that stifling milieu, doing more than most men to change the world, and earning the right to disagree with her fellow liberals about what true feminism required.
It’s worth pondering how the politics of abortion might have been different had Ted shared even some of his sister’s qualms about the practice. One could imagine a world in which America’s leading liberal Catholic had found a way to make liberalism less absolutist on the issue, and a world where a man who became famous for reaching across the aisle had reached across, even occasionally, in search of compromise on the country’s most divisive issue...
Previous Pro Ecclesia posts on this subject:
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)
Eunice Shriver - One of the Last Pro-Life Kennedys and Founder of Special Olympics - Passes Away [UPDATED]
National Catholic Register: "Hope and the Politics of Abortion"
Ted Kennedy On Abortion: 34 Years Ago