If you want to know why the Democrats are unlikely to retake the majority in either house of Congress this November, you need look no further than the boilerplate party platform, just published, entitled America Back on Track and allegedly written by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass). Already, that Kennedy claims to be the actual author of this "book" reveals an unbecoming vanity -- common to his father and late brothers -- that weakens the cause of defeating President Bush's right-wing hordes. But worse is that one of the last, semi-authentic liberals in the upper house would let his name be used by a party machine that seems determined to maintain its minority status in Washington.
With Bush way down in the polls, Tom Delay in disgrace and Iraq a growing disaster, you would think that the Democrats, including Kennedy, might sense an opportunity. Read this committee-written tract and witness the opportunity squandered, just as it was squandered in 2004 by the junior senator from Massachusetts, the "Kennedyesque" John Kerry.
To be fair, Ted Kennedy does acknowledge a "collaborator" for America Back on Track named Jeffrey Madrick, the editor of Challenge Magazine. But it's not fair to poor Madrick to be saddled with such a task, or blamed for the result, even if he was well paid.
Turgid, often self-contradictory and always predictable, this book -- if it had to be published -- should have been ghosted by somebody with the courage to reject at least some of the bromides mandated by a party leadership in rapid decay.
Which isn't to say that America Back on Track is useless. Viewed as the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee platform for the 2006 campaign, it has value as a summary. Kennedy/Madrick marshal lots of alarming facts and statistics to buttress their criticisms -- overly polite -- of Bush and the belligerent Republican majority in Congress. For example, in the realm of Bush administration secrecy, I didn't know that Congress's nonpartisan General Accounting Office had to resort to a lawsuit (unsuccessful) for the first time in its 80-year history to try to pry loose the membership of Vice President Dick Cheney's notoriously secret energy task force.
Regarding America's class, race and market-distorted education system, it's interesting to learn that France and Germany, on a percentage basis, graduate twice as many students with bachelor's degrees in science, math, computer technology and engineering as the U.S. does -- this, in part, because U.S. pharmaceutical companies pay their MBAs so much more than their PhDs. On average, say the authors, U.S. "teachers earn . . . almost $8,000 less than comparable graduates in other fields, and the gap almost triples to $23,000 after fifteen years."
Conventional liberals, Kennedy/Madrick want the federal government to increase its paltry contribution to public schools, still too reliant on the class-biased, locally levied property tax. Washington now provides only 8 percent of K-12 funding, ensuring that Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program will remain a cruel fraud (Howard Dean called it "No Child Left Untested").
Addressing America's increasingly sordid labor market, Kennedy/Madrick note the obvious: that workers can't live decently on the minimum wage -- frozen since 1997 at $5.15 an hour -- particularly since there's no national health insurance. Disgusting enough, but worse when you learn that 86 percent of low-wage food-service workers receive not one day of paid sick leave.
But as Kennedy systematically kneels at each station of the cross of liberalism -- racial equality, environmental protection, universal health care and international cooperation among others -- I can't help being struck by the timidity of someone supposedly so far to the left of the American spectrum and so politically secure in his position.
If you can wade through the sea of blandness, all the way to the end, you might conclude that the country is in dreadful shape -- steered by a reckless and tyrannical president; mired in an utterly unjustified foreign bloodbath; dominated by jeering plutocrats and shyster corporations -- and that something radical needs to be done. In the face of this crisis, Kennedy et al. offer clichés, sometimes contradictory, in the voice of an advertising agency: "Terrorism is our greatest threat . . . "; "among our most tragic errors is that we have not clearly defined our new enemy"; then, apparently thinking better of the first statement, "terrorism is our newest enemy, but the spread of nuclear weapons remains our greatest threat."
Meanwhile, Kennedy can't get the economic threats straight either. He wants a "job-creation tax credit" in the U.S. to combat job losses and wage declines caused by "offshoring." But he evidently hasn't considered the vast wage differential between Springfield and Shanghai. Like other Democratic "free-traders," and "pro-immigrant" politicians, Kennedy can't reconcile his supposed love of the American working stiff with his distaste for protective tariffs.
Absent high tariffs on cheap Chinese imports, and without a substantial, government-driven transfer of wealth from the top (where Kennedy lives) to the bottom (where the stiffs reside), all the "job training" in the world won't do much to ease the pain. Raising the minimum wage would help, but unless there's a limit on the flood of desperate immigrants -- "guest workers" or illegals -- you can't expect the free market to force wages up "naturally" to a humane level. You can't have it every which way. So Kennedy ducks and proposes "community-impact statements" when a corporation ships its assembly line to Mexico or China. Thanks, Ted.
He also ducks on energy. The market (and higher taxes) can promote conservation and fight pollution -- indeed, we should welcome higher oil prices to discourage consumption and increase fuel efficiency. But Kennedy only suggests more stringent government mileage standards for cars and trucks because he's afraid of opposing cheap gasoline. At the same time, his call for greater investment in "alternative . . . energy, especially renewable sources such as solar, biomass, and wind energy" is hypocritical given his steadfast opposition to the proposed Nantucket Sound wind-energy project.
As for Iraq, "it's hard to maintain with a straight face that the war was justified" but Kennedy the party man dares not fall out with Democratic hawks and declares that "success in Iraq is essential . . . " This is both asinine and cynical. Imagine reading these two phrases together at the funeral of your son or daughter killed in the Sunni Triangle.
I wonder what would have happened if Ted Kennedy had really written his own book, free of party dogma and the ghosts of his brothers. A radical notion, but I've heard from mutual friends that he has an authentically generous heart. And even the professional Kennedy hater Howie Carr admits that Ted Kennedy has a sense of humor, a commodity sorely lacking in America Back on Track. In his book, The Brothers Bulger, Carr quotes Teddy's response to a restaurant meeting with the scary and obdurate Billy Bulger, the longtime Massachusetts Senate president. Bulger had insisted on ordering the most expensive items on the menu, all the while refusing to compromise with Kennedy. "I don't know whether we should try to persuade him," Kennedy remarked to an associate. "I know we can't afford to keep feeding him."
It's never too late to get back on track. Just ask the former drunk driver George Bush.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© 2006 The Providence Journal Co.