Kennedy vs. Clinton

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Just as the Democratic Party in the later 1960s was dominated by the schism between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, so the party in this decade is likely to be mired in a split between the Clintons on the one hand and Ted Kennedy and John Kerry on the other.

The Kerry campaign’s recent effort to keep Hillary out of the convention’s spotlight prime time, coupled with the selection of Sen. John Edwards as Kerry’s running mate, are opening shots in this fight, which will likely escalate into a full-fledged feud.

When Kerry chose Edwards, a charismatic future contender for the presidency, he knew he was investing in an opponent for Hillary when she goes for the top job herself. If Kerry loses, Hillary will run in 2008; if he wins, she’ll run in 2012. Either way, she’ll have to beat Edwards, whom Kerry plucked from the ashes of defeat.

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Hillary, of course, was entitled to a prime-time speech. Apart from her husband, she is the most popular Democrat in the nation and she has addressed both of the last two conventions. The fiction that the women Democratic senators caucused and decided to anoint Maryland’s Barbara Mikulsky to speak for them fooled nobody.

The split began in the fall of 2003, when Kerry was floundering in the face of the Howard Dean surge. The Clintons had bet on Kerry and even sent Chris Lehane (who had played a key role in their Lewinsky-impeachment defense) to be the Massachusetts senator’s chief campaign consultant. But as Kerry faltered, the Clintons bailed out on his candidacy and pushed Gen. Wesley Clark into the race as their candidate.

The former president was quoted in public as saying that his wife and Gen. Clark were the two most outstanding Democrats in the nation. Clinton loyalists like Bruce Lindsay and Harry Thomason took their cue and went to work for Clark (a fellow Arkansan). But the unkindest cut of all was when Lehane walked out of the Kerry campaign, attesting to the senator’s lack of viability and joined up with Clark.

In rushed Ted Kennedy to save the day, sending Mary Beth Cahill of his Senate staff to steer the faltering Kerry campaign. Kennedy’s pivotal role was evident from his up-front and public position by his Mass-achusetts colleague’s side on the night Kerry won the New Hampshire primary. As Kerry was all but clinching the nomination, who introduced him to the victory rally? Ted Kennedy.

Through-out their administration, the Clintons cold-shouldered Kennedy – realizing that the average American voter saw him as radioactively liberal. In the 1996 campaign, we went into overdrive to be sure that Kennedy would have no prime-time speaking role, even though he had usually had the spotlight to himself at past Democratic conclaves.

As Bill Clinton veered to the center, he increasingly parted company with Ted Kennedy and became the senator’s factional antagonist within the party. The gap was bridged somewhat in the impeachment fight, but has come back with a vengeance now that Kennedy is using Kerry as an alternative to the Clinton domination of the party.

The increasing tendency of the Kennedy-Kerry operatives to shut out the Clintons from the campaign highlights the Clinton conundrum: They desperately want Kerry to lose, but can’t say so in public.

Bill Clinton’s publication of his memoirs a few weeks before the Democratic convention was clearly a move to slow down Kerry’s momentum. The book’s timing forced Kerry to designate Edwards much earlier than is traditional, so as to stop the former president from hogging the spotlight. Kerry will probably pay for his premature selection in decreased viewership during his convention now that it is drained of any suspense.

The battle between Bill and Hillary in one corner and Kerry, Kennedy and Edwards in the other will become as bitter as the battle between Johnson and RFK. Cahill’s bluntness in excluding Hillary from the speakers list – even though Kerry was forced to back off and let Hillary introduce Bill – is a signal that in this fight, no holds will be barred