A Rebellion and an Awkward Embrace

In the most exciting and confounding election cycle of my lifetime, Rudy Giuliani, the Prince of the City, is out because he was about to lose New York, John Edwards is out, the Clintons are fighting for their historical reputations, and the stalwart conservative New York Post has come out strong and stinging for Barack Obama. If you had asked me in December if I would write that sentence in February, I would have said: Um, no.

If there is a part of you that loves politics, loves the sheer brunt force of it, the great game of it, you are waking up each morning with a spring in your step. “What happened last night?”

Sen. Edward KennedyBoth races continue to clarify, if not resolve. On the Democratic side, a great rebellion, a coming together of former officials, members of the commenting class, and the Kennedy family to stand athwart the Clintonian future and say, Stop. They are saying, as Jack Kennedy did when pressed to endorse a hack for governor of Massachusetts, “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.”

On the Republican side an embrace, but an awkward and unfinished one. It’s like the man-hug the pol at the podium now feels he must give to the man he’s just introduced. They used to just shake and say, “Thanks, Bob,” and go to the podium. Now they embrace, with an always apparent self-consciousness. Can you imagine JFK doing this? Or Reagan?

It is this kind of embrace many in the Republican party are giving John McCain. He has real supporters. He keeps winning. But he’s not getting even close to half the vote, as the presumptive nominee should. And he has been at odds with his party on so many things.

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As much attention as the decision of the stars of the Kennedy family to endorse Sen. Obama received this week, it has still not been given its due. This was a break with the establishment and from the expected, and it may carry a price. The Clintons are deeply wired into their party, they run many money lines and power lines, and Hillary Clinton is still, in the Super Tuesday states, in the lead. Will the lives of those who rebelled against her be made more pleasant if she wins? The Clintons have never had the wit to be forgiving.

But all parties, all movements, need men and women who will come forward every decade or so to name tendencies within that are abusive or destructive, to throw off the low and grubby. Teddy’s speech in this regard was a barnburner. He went straight against the negative and bullying, hard for the need to find inspiration again.

He is an old lion of his party, a hero of the base. But people do what they know how to do, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and Teddy has long led a comfortable life as a party panjandrum who knew to sit back and watch as the dog barked and the caravan moved on. In a way he seemed to rebel against his own tendencies. He put himself on the line.

“I love this country,” he said, “I believe in the bright light of hope and possibility. I always have.”

As a conservative I would say Ted Kennedy has spent much of his career being not just wrong about the issues but so deeply wrong, so consistently and reliably wrong that it had a kind of grandeur to it. So wrong that I cannot actually think of a single serious policy question on which I agreed with him. But I remember the night President Reagan spoke of Sen. Kennedy’s brother at a fund-raiser for the JFK Library, and I remember the letter Reagan got from Teddy. “Your presence itself was such a magnificent tribute to my brother. . . . The country is well served by your eloquent graceful leadership, Mr. President.” He ended it, “With my prayers and thanks for you as you lead us through these difficult times.”

Liberals are rarely interested in pointing out, and conservatives by and large may not know, but everyone who knows Teddy Kennedy knows that he holds a deep love for his country, that he feels a reverence for the presidency and a desire that America be represented with grace abroad and stature at home. He has seen administrations come and go. And maybe much of what he’s learned came forward, came together, this week.

His principled and uncompromising rebellion seemed to me a patriotic act, and adds to the rising tide of Geffenism. When David Geffen broke with Mrs. Clinton last summer, and couched his disapproval along ethical lines, he was almost alone among important Democrats. It took some guts. Now others are joining his side. Good.

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The Republican contest may well end on Tuesday, but I sense little relief and much unease. In terms of avowed programs, policies and approaches, Mitt Romney was the more conservative candidate, and his even-keeled air won many friends. He offered executive experience and business acumen. As for how he came across, here is Mike Deaver on Ronald Reagan: “This is a face that when the baby sees it, the baby smiles.”

His supporters tell me he will fight to the end. The conservative establishment still has hopes. But the great unruly base may be doing some redefining.

If you go by the Florida returns, maybe this year positions aren’t everything. Republicans on the ground think the conservative is the one who suffered 5½ years in the Hanoi Hilton. Republicans on the ground think the conservative is the one who has endured a lifetime in the rounds in Washington and survived as antispending, antiabortion and pro-military. Republicans on the ground think the conservative is the old fighter jock who’ll keep the country safe in a rocky time ahead. And maybe Republicans on the ground are saying: He earned it.

The conventional wisdom is Mr. Romney can’t win it while Mike Huckabee’s in it. If Mr. Huckabee dropped out, Mr. Romney might pick up his conservatives. But Mr. Huckabee seems very happy running, and perhaps happy thinking of his future as the Mitt slayer in the party of John.

Mr. McCain seems to me to have two immediate problems, both of which he might address. One is that he doesn’t seem to much like conservatives, and never has. They can’t help admire him, but they’ve disagreed with him on so many issues, and when they bring this up his demeanor tends to morph into the second problem: He radiates, he telegraphs, a certain indignation at being questioned by people who’ve never had to vote in Congress and make a deal. He’s like Moe Greene in “The Godfather,” when Michael Corleone tells him he’s going to buy him out. “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Greene. I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders.” I’ve been on the firing line, punk. I am the voice of surviving conservatism.

This doesn’t always go over so well. Mr. Giuliani seems to know Mr. McCain is Moe Greene. Mr. Huckabee probably thought “The Godfather” was kinda violent. Mr. Romney may be thinking to himself, But Michael Corleone won in the end, and had better suits.