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In 2008 It’s Ronald Reagan vs. Bobby Kennedy

5 minute read
William Kristol

“The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” –Gavin Stevens, in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun

For major political parties, which outlive their individual leaders and partisans, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. That’s especially evident when those parties look to the future. As Republicans and Democrats focus on November 2008, it’s clear each of them yearns to nominate a second coming of its beau ideal, the figure it has most admired in recent decades. For Republicans, that’s Ronald Reagan. For Democrats, it’s Robert Kennedy.

Reagan is the more obvious case. In the pantheon of modern Republican heroes, he stands alone. The G.O.P. has produced seven Presidents in the past 70 years. But I’d bet that in the stump speeches of today’s G.O.P. contenders, Reagan is cited, invoked and appealed to more than the other six combined. As he should be. As President (so Republicans tell it), he got the economy going again, restored American confidence and won the cold war. As a Republican, he both sharpened the party’s message and broadened its appeal. He won two landslide elections and then–a unique achievement in the past hundred years–was sufficiently popular at the end of his term that his Vice President was elected to succeed him.

Who’s Reagan’s True Heir?

Each of the leading Republican candidates presents himself as Reagan’s heir. Rudy Giuliani reminds one and all that he began his public life in Reagan’s Justice Department. Mitt Romney invokes Reagan’s example to explain his change of heart on abortion. John McCain calls himself a Reagan Republican, citing the fact that he entered politics in the early 1980s as a Reagan supporter. Newt Gingrich, waiting on the sidelines, compares the current Republican leadership unfavorably to Reagan–whom he supported as an upstart G.O.P. Representative.

And former Senator Fred Thompson, a serious potential challenger, is in a way the most manifestly Reaganite of all. In the two weeks since the Thompson boomlet began, many times I’ve heard conservative friends consider Thompson’s merits (which are real) and then–chuckling, but almost dispositively–add, “The last time we nominated an actor, it didn’t turn out badly.”

The Democrats’ situation is different. For them, recent history does not feature a grand triumph (Reagan) preceded and followed by mixed results (Nixon and the Bushes)–a narrative that yields the hope of reliving the moment of success. The modern Democrats are more a party of tragedy than of triumph: John F. Kennedy assassinated; Lyndon Johnson’s presidency wrecked on the shoals of the Great Society and Vietnam; electoral defeats in the ’70s and ’80s interrupted only by the (failed) Carter Administration; Clinton’s victories in the ’90s accompanied by the Republican takeover of Congress. And at the heart of the Democrats’ quasi-tragic account, at the very center of the wistful might-have-been-but-wasn’t-quite-to-be narrative, is the leader who was cut down before he had the chance fully to lead: Robert Kennedy.

Bobby Kennedy’s dream–even more than John Kennedy’s–is the one that has never died for liberals. Since Bobby never had the chance to govern, his image carries a purer, more transcendent hope than even that of his elder brother. And Democrats have kept trying to revive that hope: with Teddy Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, even Bill Bradley in 2000–each a bold challenger of the party establishment, each of whom failed to displace the heirs (Carter, Mondale, Gore) of the same stolid establishment forces that stood in Bobby’s way in 1968. Finishing Bobby’s work is the most gripping and compelling task for today’s Democratic Party.

Obama vs. Thompson

That is why Barack Obama could well defeat Hillary Clinton for the nomination. It would be the victory Bobby Kennedy was denied by an assassin’s bullet. Obama is, like Kennedy, a charismatic freshman Senator, running before his time but–supporters think–uniquely suited to the time. Obama follows Kennedy in being a bold liberal and a skeptic of simple ideological stances, a gifted politician and an antipolitician, a man familiar with the halls of power yet a charismatic critic of them.

Bobby Kennedy vs. Ronald Reagan–it’s the grand matchup we were denied. They debated once, mostly about Vietnam, on a 1967 CBS telecast that featured Reagan in Sacramento, Calif., and Kennedy in New York City answering questions from students in London. (It was generally agreed that Reagan bested Kennedy, who asked afterward, “Who the f___ got me into this?”) Who would not have relished a repeat confrontation between the conservative champion and the liberal prophet? Perhaps in October, when Thompson and Obama stand across the stage from each other, the hopes and dreams of both parties riding on their shoulders, we’ll come close.

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