Some of Edward Kennedy's genuine admirers are beginning to feel that in the kind of campaign he is waging against President Carter he is seriously, perhaps fatally, imperiling his political future.
What they appear to fear is that espousing so monolithically the liberal New Deal philosophy of government, which won so many elections in the Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson era, the senator is doing less harm to Jimmy Carter than he is doing to himself.
The conviction of those who are warning Mr. Kennedy that he is heading in the wrong direction is that he s taking himself outside the mainstream of American political thinking for at least the decade of the 1980s and perhaps for the remainder of the century.
There is no doubt that in recent weeks Ted Kennedy, after a faltering and fumbling start, has emerged as a competent, coherent, and viable -- though minority -- candidate. But what concerns some of his personal and political friends is the extent to which he seems to have adopted the once popular New Deal ideology which they believe does not meet the needs or the mood of the nation today.
David Broder of the Washington Post, one of the most respected and fair-minded of the political columnists, suggests that, while it is open to the senator to lead his party in any election for the rest of the century, he is throwing away his opportunity. He does not hesitate to describe Kennedy's losing effort to deny Carter a second term as "politically passe" and as evidence that he missed a chance "to put his stamp on the future of the Democratic Party's policies and politics."
It is this development which is provoking the question: Is Kennedy turning out to be a young man of the past?
This is not a flippant derogation. The question is not being asked just by partisan opponents. It is coming from liberal-oriented, modern-minded Democrats who are not seeking to hurt Kennedy. They are seeking to head him off from becoming the outdated spokesman of a contracting wing of the Democratic Party whose philosophy cannot be the instrument for retaining control of the national government.
It seems particularly noteworthy that liberals are being challenged to keep up with the times by Kennedy's close friend and Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Paul Tsongas, whose whole family is doing everything it can to help Ted Kennedy derail the President. He hopes that some unforeseeable event will turn up to get Kennedy the nomination, but it seems evident that he does not see some liberal prescriptions that have been attributed to Kennedy as relevant to America of the 1980s.
"Liberalism must extricate itself from the 1960s," says Senator Tsongas, "and we must have answers appropriate to the generations of potential liberals."
Senator Tsongas specifically says that the speech was not intended as a judgment on Kennedy, whom he calls "one of the most thoughtful and innovative voices in American politics." Yet Tsongas chose the very audience which Senator Kennedy was also addressing to sound his warning -- the national convention of Americans for Democratic Action who were the first to push Kennedy in the race when it looked as though he would need only to wink to have the nomination handed to him.
Tsongas's warning was that unreconstructed liberalism of the recent past will not prevail in American politics as far as one can see ahead.
Kennedy repeated all the traditional formulations -- on wage-price controls, on continued massive spending on social programs, on a huge new national health program.
Tsongas repudiated the "liberal" attack on the oil companies: "The energy crisis involved one basic fact -- that oil is a finite and diminishing resource. Many liberals attack the isue by attacking the oil companies. Emotionally satisfying, yes; an answer to the problem, no."
He concluded with this political epitaph:
"If the basis of liberalism is just 1960 rhetoric, then the last meeting of liberals will inevitably be held in an old-folks home."
Tsongas does not want to see his friend, Ted Kennedy, headed there.That, in part, must be why he is speaking out, though he praises Kennedy for advancing a "forward-looking position" and not echoing "obsolete dogmas."