In the crystal-lit Senate Caucus Room, where his two elder brothers began their quests for the Presidency, the Last Kennedy proposed a revolutionary womb-to-tomb health-insurance plan for all Americans last week and dared Jimmy Carter to join him. His challenge and his choice of theaters set Washington chattering yet again that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy must be gearing up to take the Democratic nominanation away from Carter in 1980. The senator, in public and private, uttered his usual rote denials. But this time they were shadowed by the quickening spread of a dump-Jimmy, draft-Teddy insurgency in the provinces—and by the wakening belief among Kennedy's most senior political advisers whether he wants to or not.
What Kennedy offered was a vote-now, pay-later program expending Federal health benefits for the needy and mandating private insurance for everybody else (following story). By his estimates, the plan would add $28.6 billion to the budget and would cost employers and employees $11.4 billion more when fully implemented. Carter's Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano came in three days later with a smaller-bang, start-up health-care proposal at around $30 billion—at least double what the President had targeted in this season of budget-balancing frugality. Kennedy, to Carter's annoyance, got there first, making it look as if the Administration was racing its motors and padding its numbers to catch up—and, worse still, fueling the corrosive gossip in the Capital that the President is in danger of being dumped by his own party.
Edge of Challenge
Kennedy's people insisted that his intentions were entirely honorable - that he was only pushing an issue long close to his heart and had booked the single available hall large enough to handle the media herd he always attracts. "The exercise," said one topside staffer, "is moving the President, not kicking him in the behind." But it did not escape notice that Kennedy surrounded himself for the occasion with a Pan-Democratic alliance of 65 labor, consumer, church, civil-rights and senior citizens' groups, or that he wrapped his package in pointed allusions to those who offer "piecemeal" health programs in deference to "today's budgetary politics." His declaration that he still "expects" to support Carter for re-election counted for less among Kennedy watchers than the edge of challenge in his tone or the growing frequency of his forays against the President.
Nostalgia for Camelot has been the recurring chimera of Democratic politics since 1968. But this time, a Democratic President is mired low in the polls, a draft-Kennedy guerrilla movement is at work in at least fifteen states - and the senator himself is said to have begun listening to the talk in his inner circle that he may have no choice except to declare against Carter before the year is out. One senior adviser who had laughed off all such scenarios in the past now believes that the pressure could indeed become irresistible if, by this fall, the polls show Carter running 5 points or so behind Ronald Reagan and John Connally—and 2-to-1 behind Kennedy among Democrats. "The dam breaks at that point," this counselor says, "and if you're Kennedy, you know you have some soul-searching to do—but soon."
The official line in both camps is that Kennedy really does not choose to run—that he is simply using his crown-prince aura to amplify his own voice and advance his own liberal causes. "Should we stay loose?" pressed one old friend on the Hill, bewildered by Kennedy's sharpening policy wars with Carter. The senator said no - he had given Carter his word that he would not mount a challenge, "and I intend to keep it." Carter's people in turn elect to take him at that word—for now—and to view his periodic assaults with a certain that's-politics toleration. Hamilton Jordan, master of Carter's 1980 playbook, guesses that Kennedy will hover over 1980 as Hubert Humphrey did over 1976, without ever lighting. Says another political operative: "He's running—but not in '80."
But their credulity and their tempers stretched thin when, three weeks ago, Kennedy blasted Carter's oil-profits tax as a "transparent fig leaf"—the insult that Carter set angrily down as "a lot of baloney." And their calm frayed again last week with Kennedy's health-care spectacular in That Room. The irritable buzz among them was that the senator was showboating with a plan that couldn't pass—"He's a guy playing Plato," grumped one Carter hand—and wouldn't fly in any case for less than double its announced cost. Their discomfort was doubled when HEW's Califano brought in his version late and overweight by several billion beyond Carter's outside limit. The President, who had wanted something earlier and cheaper, stewed through a briefing on the package for an hour, then glanced at his watch, excused himself and walked out. His people were left to start dickering the price down to $20 billion or less.
The prospects for any plan at all remain problematical in a Congress caught in the schizoid tug between the appeal of universal health care and the apotheosis of the pinched penny. Carter's phased-in, economy-class approach sought to occupy the middle ground, less grandiose than Kennedy's, more generous than some competing proposals by Sen. Russell Long, among others, primarily limiting coverage to catastrophic illnesses. The White House strategy is to work the Senate first, hoping to strike an alliance with Long and, eventually, Kennedy, and then wage a full-court press for passage by the House in the election-year climate of 1980. Their hope for Kennedy's help rests a bit wishfully on the premist that he will settle for a few liberalizing amendments to get a law on the books. "W think we can pass something by 1980," says a Carter operative, "and he can't."
It was enough for Kennedy's unauthorized campaigners that he tried, and so threw the differences between him and Carter into ever sharper relief. They are a mixed lot, seasoned pros in some states, earnest amateurs in others. But they are already at work turning the critical early showdown states into a mine field for Carter—and, so they hope, an irresistible temptation for Kennedy. A labor-backed draft-Teddy movement is already organizing for January's precinct caucuses in Iowa, and last week a coalition of well-credentialed party activists were discovered to be putting together a serious Kennedy write-in campaign for New Hampshire's season-opening primary in February. The potential humiliation for Carter there was clear in a new Boston Globe poll placing him 22 points behind Kennedy with or without Jerry Brown in the running. "Carter," says state Democratic chairman Romeo Dorval, "is absolutely all by himself."
The news from other battlefronts was hardly more encouraging. Four or five liberal congressmen plan to announce for Kennedy this week. Another, Richard Nolan, has already floated a draft committee in his home state of Minnesota and claims it has spread so far so fast that it needs a national coordinator—him. A group of dropout '76 Jimmycrats in Illinois plans to organize as "Carter Delegates for Kennedy" next month. Cleveland's Democratic organization is set to go on record for Teddy this week, a move heavy with local political intrigue but still embarrassing to Carter. Florida Democrats opened a further theater for mischief by scheduling a Presidential straw vote at their convention this November. Carter was alarmed enough to invite one ringleader, national committeeman Sergio Bendixen, to an intime White House dinner and to tell him afterward, "Sergio, I understand you are giving us problems." The straw vote stuck—and Bendixen will shortly declare his own well-known commitment to Kennedy.
The first response of the Kennedy people has been to ask the insurgents to quit. But their mild reproofs have not been taken seriously, and some have begun to wonder if they are not witnessing the beginnings of the nearest thing to an authentic draft since Wendell Willkie in 1940. The growing consensus among them is that Carter is in trouble—"very, very serious trouble," says one longtime family retained—and that Kennedy will have to decide by November or December what to do. To delay longer, till after the first primaries, would be to forfeit a chance at a third of the available delegates. Instead, in the view of his privy council, Kennedy's breakpoint is likely to be the late 1979 polls. If the Republicans have surged past Carter and Jerry Brown is the only Democratic alternative, a Teddy hand says, "Kennedy cannot say no."
The choice, as always, is clearer to the seconds than to their principal. Kennedy is said to be keenly aware of the risks in challenging Carter; it would rake up Chappaquiddick, open his unsteady private life to public view and quite possibly put his life in danger. Insurgency, moreover, runs against his grain as a party-line Democrat. It pleases him to note that he has voted with Carter on eighteen of 21 important roll calls this year, including such unpopular causes as gas rationing and Rhodesia policy; he even agreed to sponsor Rosalynn Carter's pet project, a $99 million mental-health bill she and the President announced last week. "Look," says the senator of his collisions with Carter, "I've been here for seventeen years, for heaven's sake. These are not personal matters - these are issues. "
Keeper of the Flame
But the issues that have brought Kennedy increasingly into confrontation with Carter are gut questions for Democrats, and they have cast the senator—not the President—as the keeper of the party's flickering liberal flame. Kennedy professed surprise as usual at the stir his health plan caused, and recited his usual litany of reluctance: "I intend to support the President, and I believe he'll be renominated and re-elected." But the growing view around Kennedy is that the choice may not be his—that the flow of events and the lucklessness of Jimmy Carter may lead by late autumn to an offer he cannot refuse.