Kennedyism means "tough liberalism."
That phrase is often treated as one of the great oxymorons of American politics. Yet the stereotype of liberals is that they are wimpy, not tough. At least, that's the stereotype that took hold after the great American cultural revolution of the 1960s. Democrats nominated a succession of presidential candidates who had the image of being easy to push around: Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis.
The Kennedys symbolized an older image, that of such Democrats as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. You didn't defy those guys with impunity. FDR went after his enemies with gusto. Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. If you dared to defy LBJ, you might wake up in the morning missing an important body part. Oppose JFK, and brother Bobby would come after you. Those old-fashioned Democrats were not to be trifled with.
Democrats spent years in the political wilderness, longing for "another Kennedy" to step forward and save them. But Edward Kennedy didn't run for president in 1972 or 1976, when the longing was at its peak. He ran in 1980, when the Democrats already had a president. True, Carter was a president with whom the party was not very happy. Kennedy had trouble articulating why he was seeking the presidency, but his reason was pretty clear: He was running to preserve the Democratic Party's tradition of expansive social welfare liberalism. In 1980, Kennedy embodied the true faith of the Democratic Party. He challenged Carter as an impostor.
Kennedy's presidential campaign was doomed by many things: Chappaquiddick; the public's rally-round-the-flag response after Iranian students seized American hostages in Tehran (Carter's job-approval ratings shot up for a few months); and the sheer impossibility of unseating an incumbent president of his own party. Even Ronald Reagan could not do that. In 1976, he failed to oust an unelected Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford.
Reagan embodied the other great oxymoron of American politics. He was a "nice conservative." The stereotype is that conservatives are mean and nasty. Think of the images of Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Dick Cheney. But Reagan used his one debate with Carter in 1980 to convince voters that he was a likable guy who probably wouldn't start a war or throw old people out into the snow.
Nice conservatives win; so do tough liberals. Bill Clinton faced down the press at the very beginning of the 1992 campaign when he was confronted with controversies over his relationship with Gennifer Flowers and his draft record. And unlike Mondale and Dukakis, Clinton didn't let Jesse Jackson push him around. Remember the Sister Souljah moment?
The breakthrough in Barack Obama's presidential campaign came when he won Edward Kennedy's endorsement in January 2008. Kennedy, keeper of the old Democratic tradition, gave Obama the blessing of authenticity. Obama went on to prove he was a tough liberal in the campaign. He beat the two most formidable machines in American politics -- the Clintons' and the Republican Party's.
Edward Kennedy was unusual in that he appealed to voters on both sides of the Democratic Party's class divide. Today, both parties are cross-class coalitions. Republicans are a combination of country club conservatives and "values voters" (the Sarah Palin crowd). Democrats are a union of "limousine liberals" and economic populists. Kennedy was a hero to both.
MoveOn.org drew liberal activists to a candlelight vigil in Washington's Dupont Circle the night after Kennedy died. The next day, working-class whites and African-Americans filled the streets of Boston to honor a man who identified with their struggle. Like FDR, Kennedy was tireless in defending their interests. As he said in 1968 when he delivered the eulogy for his slain brother Robert, "Through no virtues and accomplishments of our own, we have been fortunate enough to be born in the United States under the most comfortable conditions. We, therefore, have a responsibility to others who are less well off." Kennedy was a child of privilege who devoted his life to challenging abuses of privilege.
For the Baby Boom Generation, the story of the Kennedys -- their lofty ideals, human failings, victories, tragedies, and sheer determination to endure -- carries a personal significance. It is the newsreel of our lives.
This article appears in the September 5, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.