Ted Kennedy's death of brain cancer at 77 could not have occurred at a more symbolic moment. By the end of his life, the late senator became the lion in winter of old-style American liberalism—and one of his final political acts, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, was to pass on the mantle to Barack Obama, the prime champion of liberalism's new incarnation.
The praise bestowed on Kennedy today by political allies and rivals alike is testament to his superb political skills, including his capacity for bipartisan legislative work. Yet the grief that accompanies the passing of a public figure of such stature should not obscure the fact that his career also illustrates the darker side of the liberal legacy.
Kennedy championed a plethora of liberal causes that are surrounded by an aura of nobility: the defense of the poor, the disabled and the sick, the rights of women and minorities. Yet many of the measures he supported are prime examples of the discrepancy between idealistic causes and unintended effects. Thus, the vast majority of economists agree that increasing the minimum wage—one of the legislative achievements with which Kennedy is credited—leads to increased unemployment among the most vulnerable portion of the labor force, pricing the least skilled workers out of the labor market. Affirmative action, which Kennedy helped uphold on the federal level, tends to result in race discrimination against working-class whites (and, in many cases, Asians as well) and often backfires against its supposed beneficiaries as well. Some of Kennedy's other noble causes have been largely symbolic: thus, the Violence Against Women Act and hate crimes legislation create federal penalties for offenses that are already criminally prosecuted by the states.
Kennedy's liberalism was rooted in the belief that guidance by the government, especially the federal government, is the most effective way to improve people's lives. Indeed, the bipartisan efforts for which he was often hailed were invariably about collaboration with nanny-state Republicanism—the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 being a prime example. This "Uncle Sam knows best" mentality extended to some sympathy for regulation of the media market for the "common good": Kennedy led an attempt to restrict Rupert Murdoch's ownership of local media in Massachusetts and, in 2007, foiled a Republican effort in the Senate to bar possible reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine (which would cripple the independent media by requiring equal time for different points of view).
Support for interventionist government was hardly a viewpoint unique to Ted Kennedy. What Kennedy brought to this political philosophy, however, was the paternalistic mindset of noblesse oblige: the idea that the aristocracy has a special responsibility to protect and look out for the little people. The Kennedy clan is probably the closest there has ever been to an American aristocracy.
Of course, the flip side of noblesse oblige is the arrogance of privilege, and that was on abundant display in Kennedy's life. It was evident in his sense of entitlement during his 1980 presidential campaign, when he could not adequately explain his reasons for running and at one point made the revealing statement, "I don't mind not being president, I just mind that someone else is." Unfortunately, it was also evident in the tragedy of Chappaquiddick, in which Kennedy received a mere suspended sentence for failing to report the auto accident that killed his passenger, former Robert F. Kennedy campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (an incident unmentioned on feminist blogs, such as Jezebel.com, that had words of high praise for the late senator's commitment to women). One is reminded of the old axiom that love of humanity does not always translate into care for actual people.
Many commentators have noted the irony of Kennedy's passing at the height of the debate on universal health care, another cause he passionately championed. Perhaps the biggest irony is that today, the political fortunes of President Obama, whose victory Kennedy treated in some ways as a vicarious fulfillment of his own failed presidential quest, are suffering because millions of Americans—not just conservatives—reject the vision of centralized bureaucratic control as the path to betterment. Obama's liberalism is more ideologically flexible than Kennedy's, but it still bears the stamp of big-government paternalism. In today's political environment, far more decentralized than it was for most of Ted Kennedy's career, such paternalism is unlikely to command the kind of awe that creates political icons and dynasties.