Ted Kennedy's real record

By AL GIORDANO  |  August 26, 2009

Myth versus reality

Kennedy's ability to work with Senate Republicans may also be due to another little known factor: that Kennedy has not always voted as a doctrinaire liberal. Conservatives such as the Cato Institute's Boaz like to say that "Ted Kennedy's got about the longest record for big government of anyone in Congress." But Boaz also notes, "There have been a few exceptions."

For instance, Boaz acknowledges that Kennedy was the key supporter in the deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, in the late '70s. "Those were clearly good policies," Boaz says. "Twice as many people fly these days. Affluent people complain because now there's all this hoi polloi on the airlines."

Boaz also praises Kennedy as someone who's been consistent in his promotion of human rights, focusing "not just on South Africa and other places of left-wing concern," but also on countries headed by repressive communist regimes.

Boaz was not surprised by Kennedy's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), noting that liberals have favored free trade since World War II. Even though labor turning against free trade in the 1970s, he says "establishment liberals" such as Kennedy still tend to support it. Nothing that a majority of Democrats actually voted against NAFTA, Boaz says of Kennedy: "I suppose he deserves credit. In that sense, he's better than most Democrats on free-trade issues."

And Kennedy's move back toward the libertarian position opposing mandatory sentencing, according to Boaz, was the only "saving grace" in the $30 billion anti-crime bill passed this year. Kennedy was the author of the 1975 law that created mandatory sentencing. He himself might well admit that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career: the result was federal prisons packed with non-violent offenders.

But in 1994, as a member of the House-Senate conference committee on the crime bill, Kennedy helped reverse that error. Kennedy played the key role in saving a provision known as the "safety valve," which allows judges to bypass mandatory sentences with first-time non-violent drug offenders ("Talking Politics," News, July 1).

Kennedy's masterful sense of timing, as cited by Mitchell, was evident in that debate. When it became clear to Kennedy that he did not have the votes to include the racial-justice provision (an effort to ensure that the crime bill's 60 new death penalties would not be disproportionately applied to blacks and other minorities), Kennedy made sure that some Republican lawmakers would give him their votes for the safety valve in exchange for his dropping his push for the racial clause.

Truth about welfare

On a recent edition of Adler On-Line, on Channel 68 (WABU), a caller told host Chuck Adler that Kennedy was "the father of the welfare state." The record, though, contradicts that myth.

Democratic attempts to reform welfare were launched in the mid 1960s by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Kennedy- and Johnson-administration official, and by Robert Kennedy, then a senator from New York. RFK, in his 1967 book To Seek a Newer World, argued, "Too often in the past we have been enmeshed in the traditional debate between liberals and conservatives over whether we should or should not spend more government funds on programs. What we have failed to examine with any thoroughness is the impact of those programs on those we have sought to assist." He called for the Jeffersonian decentralization of welfare programs, for placing them "back in the hands of the people they are supposed to serve."

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Related: Ted's turn, Have you heard the one about Chappaquiddick?, After Ted, More more >
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