WASHINGTON -- Last month, it was Jimmy Carter who attacked the political tactics of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. This month, it is the turn of Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, and the refrain sounds familiar: Kennedy based his 1980 presidential campaign against the Carter-Mondale ticket partly on the unrealistic idea that a national health care insurance could be passed by Congress.
In his just-released autobiography, The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics, Mondale recounts in vivid detail his still-festering disenchantment with the way Kennedy challenged Carter for the Democratic presidential nominees and split the party. The Carter-Mondale ticket ultimately prevailed over Kennedy but was weakened and lost in the general election to the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan.
"As much as I admired Kennedy's long struggle for national health insurance -- a cause in which we fought side by side -- I think he misread the nation's circumstances and mood in 1980," Mondale wrote. "If our administration had proposed a huge new national health program that year, at a time of frightening budget deficits and inflation, the Congress wouldn't have touched it and the public would have regarded it as an act of political desperation."
Mondale's book follows the publication last month of Carter's White House Diary. In an interview on 60 Minutes to promote the diary, Carter said Kennedy's call for national health insurance undercut a Carter-Mondale proposal. "The fact is that we would have had comprehensive health care now, had it not been for Ted Kennedy’s deliberately blocking the legislation that I proposed," Carter said. "It was his fault. Ted Kennedy killed the bill." Kennedy eventually supported a more incremental approach to health care legislation. Kennedy died in August 2009 and President Obama signed a health care bill into law last March.
In his book, Mondale noted that he attended a memorial service for Kennedy last year and "I mourned his death deeply." But the wounds of their 1980 battle remain. Mondale recounted how Kennedy called one night in November 1979, confirming speculation Kennedy would seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Mondale said he told Kennedy that such a fight would "tear the party apart and it's going to be hard for us to win in November."
As Mondale notes, he often "seemed fated" to oppose members of the Kennedy family. He worked for Hubert Humphrey in 1960 against John F. Kennedy, and again for Humphrey in 1968 against Robert F. Kennedy. The 1980 campaign against Edward M. Kennedy marked a third such effort. Yet, as Mondale relates it, he was in earlier years usually in sync with the Kennedys when it came to legislative priorities. Over time, however, Mondale said public opinion shifted against big social programs.
"The magnificent social vision Ted and I shared when we came of age as senators might be enough to rally the community of Democrats, but I didn't think it was enough to win a national election -- or provide an answer to Reagan's conservative message," Mondale wrote.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.