Kennedy advice to Clinton: Don't be a GOP Democrat

January 12, 1995|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ted Kennedy, in his formula for Democratic Party recovery in a speech before the National Press Club, had only good things to say about President Clinton directly. But indirectly he seemed to be coaxing the president back from the "move to the right" of which many others have accused him since the Nov. 8 Democratic debacle.

Kennedy spoke of the president's "remarkable record of achievement" in his first two years in office and suggested that Clinton didn't get proper credit because he and the Democratic Congress "took on an almost unprecedented array of tough challenges, and did not win every battle."

Massachusetts' senior senator painted Clinton as a victim of "a Republican strategy of obstruction, distortion and massive personal attack" on him and Hillary Clinton, and lectured fellow Democrats that they "need to fight back for our beliefs, not turn our back on the Clinton administration."

The pet liberal target of conservatives had harsh words for those who have done so.

"Blaming Bill Clinton by some in our party," Kennedy said, "comes with ill grace from those who abandoned him on critical votes in the last Congress, then ran from him in the campaign and then lost, often by wide margins. Now they come forward to advocate a strategy discredited by their own defeats."

Kennedy mentioned no names but former Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, who blamed the loss of his Senate race on Clinton and then had the chutzpah to serve as host for a Democratic Leadership Council dinner with the president as featured speaker the same night, immediately came to mind.

The senator, in response to a question, said he even supported the president's post-election call for a middle-class tax cut, viewed by many as an attempt to compete with the Republicans who have called for one in their "Contract with America."

Kennedy said that his fundamental recommendation to Clinton "is that he stay the course of change and do what he thinks is right," adding that "my advice to my fellow Democrats is that we work with the president for change -- instead of seeking to change our principles, or distance ourselves from him."

If President Clinton had not created the widespread impression that he is willing to shift ground as a result of the Nov. 8 elections, however, Kennedy's basic recommendation would not have been necessary.

Other Kennedy observations seemed only thinly veiled chidings ofthe president not to flirt with me-tooism in his efforts to accommodate himself to the preference the voters most recently declared for Republicans.

"The caricatures of us by the other side will be ineffective,"

Kennedy said, "as long as we vigorously oppose them and expose them, instead of sheepishly acquiescing in them. If Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition and try to act like Republicans, we will lose -- and deserve to lose . . . Democrats must be more than warmed-over Republicans."

Kennedy cited his own re-election victory as evidence that sticking fast to his liberal beliefs was a winning strategy.

Saying he rejected "such qualifiers as 'New Democrat' [Clinton's favorite self-description] or 'Old Democrat' or 'Neo-Democrat,' " Kennedy said he "ran as a Democrat in belief as well as name. This turned out to be not only right in principle, it was also the best politics."

The senator conveniently did not mention the long, much-admired Kennedy history in his home state, which certainly was an element in his re-election, apart from his undiluted liberalism.

As for Clinton's most conspicuous legislative defeat, health care reform, Kennedy said he believed "voters would have rallied to Democrats in 1994 if we had gone down fighting as hard as we could for health reform. Instead, we engaged in a search for a phantom compromise that our opponents never intended to achieve. We allowed the great debate in Congress to end without a vote -- with a whimper, not a bang -- and we must not make that mistake again."

Kennedy didn't mention Clinton in this regard, either, but if the president chose to take his remarks as a gentle prod to exhibit more backbone, there seemed to be reason.

The old voice of Democratic liberalism may be a bit more gravelly these days, but it still comes through loud and clear.

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