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The Senator and the Symbol

Conservatives resisted what Kennedy stood for, and should resist what he now stands for.

The most important lesson to be learned from Ted Kennedy’s career — his true political legacy — is that, in partisan politics, ideas matter. What matter over the long haul are a consistently held set of beliefs and the ability to articulate those beliefs in an accessible, attractive manner. Short-term victories may be achieved by superiority in the mechanics of campaigning, political organization, and voter mobilization. But long-term shifts in the national political culture require the repetition of a plausible narrative that resonates with a critical mass of voters. Ted Kennedy’s liberal narrative never changed between his first Senate campaign in 1962 through his endorsement of Barack Obama for president 45 years later. Kennedy’s effectiveness as a spokesman for statist cures to the nation’s economic and social ills rested upon his credibility as a passionate apostle of Big Government. Opponents could pierce Kennedy’s intellectual armor but not his ideological commitment. Today’s spokesmen for a smaller federal government can learn little of value from Kennedy’s policy prescriptions. But they can learn a great deal from Kennedy’s skilled marketing of his beliefs, especially his unwillingness to water down his ideology to suit fluctuations in the nation’s political temperature.

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