Liberals start the New Year sifting through the wreckage. Issue for issue, Americans agree with liberal positions on most important topics, yet conservative Republicans have a stranglehold on the federal and most state governments, most certainly including our own here in Wisconsin.
How liberals assess the debacle at the top of the ticket is crucial because it dictates how they go forward. When an election is this close (and of course Hillary Clinton won the popular vote), just about any reason for losing is credible. She lost because she was a woman or because of James Comey or the Russians did it or she wasn’t Bernie Sanders or she didn’t spend enough time in states like Wisconsin. The reason you choose might say as much about you as it does about Clinton.
What is clear is that Clinton underperformed with constituency groups she was counting on, while she got hit by a tsunami of white, working-class resentment. She was the most qualified candidate in modern history running against the least qualified major party candidate for president ever. Unfortunately for her and for the country, she ran in a year when her own packed resume worked against her. Just when a large part of the population wanted radical change, she represented stability and the status quo.
The Democrats probably could not have picked a better person to actually be president or a worse candidate to run in that moment. She was no crossover candidate. She was just one thing: competent. What they needed was someone both competent and charismatic. Both rational and radical.
Now, you might not think that what the world needed last year was another Kennedy biography. The Kennedys are the most written about family outside of the Holy one. But Larry Tye’s, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon is worth reading as a sort of road map from the wilderness for liberals.
Here’s how Tye describes him in the introduction:
Bobby Kennedy’s history hints at more promise than even his boosters realized at the time of his death, because he drew such a wide range of Americans to his cause. This man, who grew up mingling with queens, popes and Hollywood idols, forged bonds not just with Negroes, Chicanos, and American Indians, but with the firemen and bricklayers a later generation would call “Reagan Democrats.” Who else could claim concurrent friendships with the student radical Tom Hayden and the establishment mainstay Richard Daley?
In his brief 82-day run for the presidency, Kennedy had time to formally enter only a handful of primaries. Wisconsin wasn’t among them, but he did run in the Midwestern states of Indiana and Nebraska and won them both, even though neither showed promise for an East Coast liberal. Kennedy won by going places where he couldn’t expect to be popular and by making a genuine connection with voters, sometimes by telling them things they didn’t want to hear but also by adapting to voters where they lived.
Tye quotes RFK talking with his aides during the Indiana campaign:
Rural whites “don’t want to listen to what the blacks want and need. You have to get them listening by talking about what they’re interested in, before you can start trying the persuade them about other matters.”
But the thing is, once he had their attention he did try to persuade tough audiences about other matters. In front of medical students at Indiana University he told them, to a chorus of boos, that they might be required to care for the poor. And at a businessmen’s club luncheon, after addressing local concerns, he went on to talk about “American children starving in America” to the discomfort of his audience. Tye quotes a journalist who was there as saying, “He was telling them precisely the opposite of what they wanted to hear.”
Still, he won easily in Indiana even against a conservative, favorite son governor. He went on to win again in Nebraska where journalist (and former Daily Cardinal editor) Jeff Greenfield described it this way:
There was a kind of communication between him and, you know, almost Grant Wood kind of characters in a sense — leather-skinned, very hard working people, very traditional values...the last people in the world you would imagine Robert Kennedy to have any relationship with. Farmers had the sense that he was somehow not a part of all those gray, faceless, three-button-suited, crewcut people that were responsible for a lot of what had driven them crazy.
In this past election, the only example of this kind of thing I can recall is Bernie Sanders’ speech at Liberty University where he told the mostly conservative crowd at the evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell that he disagreed with them on things like abortion and gay marriage, but thought they could find common ground on certain other issues of social justice.
Look, Bobby Kennedy is a hero of mine, but I realize that he can’t be re-created. He was the product of his upbringing and his myriad advantages as well as of the times he lived in. But the essence of RFK is his authenticity and his ability to combine breathtaking idealism with bare-knuckled politics. Tye describes him as, “half Che Guevara, half Niccolo Machiavelli.”
He was not above pandering when he needed to but he also seemed to understand that his audiences could handle the truth when they needed to hear it. And, maybe paradoxically, when a politician tells a group of voters something they don’t want to hear, some of those voters will vote for him anyway just because he treated them with the kind of respect that says that they can handle the truth.
By the time Kennedy was killed he had defeated Eugene McCarthy and faced only establishment candidate Hubert Humphrey for the nomination at the Chicago convention. But after his death the Democratic Party pretty much became what McCarthy was: academic, self-righteous and humorless. Had Kennedy lived, it might have been cast in his image instead: intuitive, passionate and a little bit self-effacing.
In searching for their way out of the wilderness, liberals could do worse than starting the journey with a long look back at Bobby Kennedy.