Old time TAC alum Jim Antle says just about all that needs to be said about Ted Kennedy here. Jim may be overgenerous to say that Kennedy represented liberalism at its best as well as its worst, but certainly Republicans and Democrats alike found him useful as the archetypal liberal. Now that he’s gone, the Republicans may suffer the more for it since good villains are hard to come by. Senators are best because they stick around so long — Kennedy was first elected in 1962. House speakers are too obscure and transient; they’re fine for short-term direct mail, but you can’t build an ideological movement in opposition to, say, Tom Foley, or even Jim Wright. (Gingrich propelled his career as a GOP House leader by taking on Wright, but that didn’t help Gingrich in the least once he was speaker himself.) Nancy Pelosi makes an effective symbol of Democratic liberalism for now, but she won’t have anything close to the 40-year political lifespan of Ted. Jimmy Carter is the last great rogue left in the conservative movement’s gallery. And he won’t last much longer.
There are, of course, senators well to Kennedy’s left. But Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a high enough profile, and Russ Feingold is too decent. Democrats, it’s true, haven’t had a good Republican figure of perpetual hate for a very long time, maybe since Herbert Hoover. Already Obama and company sound rather quaint when they justify their policies by summoning the shades of Bush, Cheney, and Gingrich. But Democrats have been without an archenemy for such a long time that they’ve become accustomed to lacking one. GOP propaganda still leans heavily on Teddy. Moreover, the Left has more stock villains than the Right: fat-cat businessmen, oil and pharmaceutical companies, tobacco of course. Those can always rally liberals. Republicans, on the other hand, have to tread very carefully in putting welfare queens to the same use. There’s always “anti-American leftist professors” to fall back on, but relying on that stereotype won’t do anything to help the GOP win back college graduates (who now lean Democratic, 52 percent to 37 percent).
Maybe Al Gore will save the conservative movement by making another movie.