IF a Democrat decides to take on President Clinton in next year's primaries, he probably won't be named Kennedy. But it could happen.
After his recent National Press Club speech, Sen. Edward Kennedy was asked if he might mount such a challenge. He said absolutely not. But he looked at the young man to his right at the head table and said, ``I can't speak for my nephew Joe Kennedy.''
Whereupon Congressman Kennedy, with the audience's eyes turned on him, flashed a big, enigmatic smile. Did he find the question ridiculous? Or could it be that he was saying he is keeping his options open?
Senator Kennedy's speech was one that Joe could use as his campaign message. In it, the Massachusetts senator said that the old-time liberalism should not be abandoned. He scorned Democrats who have moved toward the right as the result of the election. ``We do not need a second Republican Party,'' Kennedy fairly shouted. The audience roared approval.
Kennedy wasn't breaking with the president. Indeed, he went out of his way to praise Mr. Clinton. Yet his speech could be read as a lecture to the president: that he would be making a big mistake if he turned his back on liberalism, which had brought about so much important social change.
Joseph Kennedy as a presidential candidate? I hear laughter from some quarters: He is too confrontational; he's abrasive. Yet that's what was said about his father, Robert. They have both battled for what they thought was right. That, plus the still-magic Kennedy name, could carry him far in a presidential bid.
Republicans won't like Joe Kennedy; neither will conservative Democrats. But by expressing old-time Democratic liberalism young Kennedy might capture the nomination.
All this is not to be taken as an endorsement of a Joseph Kennedy candidacy. In fact, it's difficult for me to accept the assertion in Senator Kennedy's speech that a lot more Democrats would have won in the last election if they had followed the traditional liberal approach that had been successful for him in Massachusetts. He's advocating that this be done in the 1996 elections. But I'm yet to be persuaded that this is a winning formula outside Massachusetts.
I recall the 1972 presidential election when the liberal George McGovern won only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Senator McGovern's anti-Vietnam-war position hurt him then. But his liberal position on domestic matters was also rebuffed by voters.
Today Americans desire, even demand, that government be more efficient. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans are riding a wave of conservatism.
But moods change quickly. What if by next year much of the public comes to believe that the GOP's slashing of programs has gone too far? What if many Americans feel that the Republican changes hurt too many people? In that climate a Joseph Kennedy could lift the banner of compassion high and perhaps carry his charge into the White House.
A few days after the Kennedy speech, the new Democratic Party chairman, Sen. Christopher Dodd, appeared at a Monitor breakfast and echoed the advice of his old friend Senator Kennedy. Will these two powerful Democrats be able to arrest the drift of the president toward compromise and even conciliation with the Republicans? Stay tuned.