Senator Edward Kennedy has President Jimmy Carter on the run. Last week the two men clashed over a proposed national health insurance plan, but as the tension between them mounts and the political pundits anxiously await each new skirmish, the intrigue has obscured the issues.
The conflict is longstanding. As early as the 1976 campaign, Carter was angrily saying he didn’t have to “kiss Ted Kennedy’s ass.” But in recent weeks the pace of their duel has quickened, and Kennedy has the upper hand. He has the White House scurrying to keep up with his latest attacks, trying to make the president seem more the leader than the follower he has become.
The scene last week was perfect. There was Kennedy in the Senate Caucus Room announcing his long-awaited national health insurance bill. No one missed the point that both his brothers, John and Robert, had proclaimed their presidential candidacy in that very room. Now, flanked by powerful union leaders from the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO, Edward Kennedy challenged Carter “to make quality health care a right for all our people.”
What Kennedy was proposing was complete health care ' insurance for every United States citizen starting in
1983. The U.S. is the only major industrialized nation without such a system. The senator’s plan would add $28.6 billion a year to the federal budget and $11.4 billion to industry and individual health costs if it became fully operational three years later; and he has the support of 65 national groups from the NAACP to unions to religious organizations.
By Wednesday, the administration had replied with its own, more limited, $10to $15-billion expansion of the current Medicaid and Medicare programs. The plan was announced by the department of health, education and welfare without flair or ceremony—or the hundreds of reporters and supporters who surrounded Kennedy. As one political observer put it, “If anyone but Ted Kennedy had announced that bill, they could’ve done it from a phone booth.”
Reporters were much more concerned with Kennedy’s presidential plans, however, than with his health project, since the latest challenge to the president came just two weeks after a run-in with Carter that sent “Kennedy for president” fever to new heights. It has become known as the “fig leaf and baloney” war and it was fought over Carter’s proposed “windfall” profits tax which is designed to hit oil companies when price controls begin to be phased out on June 1. Kennedy told a newspa-
per editors’ convention that the administration had been “intimidated” by oil company lobbyists into proposing a token tax that was “no more than a fig leaf” over the vast profits the industry would reap. A few hours later, at a news conference, Carter snapped back that this was “just a lot of baloney.”
Next day, White House aides were quick to say that the president thought Kennedy “had gone far enough.” But they were equally eager to explain that this was not “the beginning of a fight.” And clearly Carter could ill afford a break with Kennedy in view of the current “Ted in 1980” clamor. Kennedy has said repeatedly that he expects Carter to run, and win, but he has not said he himself will not run under any circumstances, and movements to draft him for the Democratic nomination have already started in New Hampshire (site of the first primary next year), Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Florida.
Last week the polls were looking favorable to Kennedy, too. Democrats prefer him over Carter 58 per cent to 31 per cent according to Gallup and, as history has shown, the symbolically important New Hampshire primary could start a presidential slide. Even if Kennedy did not enter the race, voters could write in his name as they did those of
Henry Cabot Lodge, victor over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Lyndon Johnson, who beat Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Certainly the White House seemed frightened enough to leak some unlikely scenarios for 1980. The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that a source “very close to the president” had theorized that Kennedy would run for vice-president in 1980 on the understanding that Carter would back him for president in 1984. But most political observers in Washington thought that highly unlikely. There was no reason, they opined, why Kennedy should give up his extremely powerful Senate position for a lacklustre role as Carter’s No.
2. A Kennedy vice-presidency was on the cards only if Carter plunged so low in the polls that a Republican victory looked sure.
Meanwhile there were a dozen plans afoot to get Kennedy to run. One version had him waiting to see if California’s governor, Jerry Brown, bloodied the president in early primary races, and then stepping in to save the country if Brown succeeded. But most saw Kennedy using the current game to influence administration policy—the White House would rather make a few concessions to avoid a possibly disastrous squabble—and save his presidential ambition for 1984.
Indeed, while Kennedy sat like a Cheshire cat on Capitol Hill at week’s end, Brown breezed into town, hoping to score a few political points of his own. He wanted to ask the president why California was getting hit the hardest in the gasoline crisis, and to see what Carter planned to do about it. Although there was some anxiety at the White House the night before his arrival, the governor seemed reassured by the pres-ident’s plans to alleviate California’s 3 problems by reducing environmental standards, better enforcement of the 55-m.p.h. speed limit and more federal money. With all that patronage heading California’s way, chances of Brown bloodying the president next year seemed remote and so, therefore, did the need for a Kennedy rescue act.
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