Ted Kennedy is hot politically; his crowds, his polls and his press are all good. No longer is he compared daily, and unfavorably, to idealized reminiscences of his martyred brothers. Now the comparisons, which are more favorable to Edward Kennedy, involve the improvement in his 1982 public performances over those in his failed 1980 campaign.
Even the issues and the Republican administration look to be cooperating with the Massachusetts Democrat. The conservative president, who looks like an absolute million in jeans and work shirt, is instead pictured in expensive jodhpurs or white tie and tails, while denying that his policies tilt toward the rich. When the latest monthly unemployment casualties are released, reporters rush for reaction, not to the high-tech "Atari" Democrats with their stated preference for the new communications over the old compassion, but to the enduring liberal, Ted Kennedy. Right now, for Kennedy, there is almost an embarrassment of political riches in the form of issues on which he is on the opposite, and probably the popular side from the administration: extension of the voting rights law, cuts in defense spending and full protection of Social Security benefits. And, of course, the hottest issue of all, the nuclear freeze.
But if Kennedy, the present Democratic front-runer in all published polls, plans to run for president in 1984, then the nuclear freeze issue, which he currently "owns," would probably be the worst possible issue on which he could run. In the first place, any foreign policy issue is a tough one for a challenger, as Kennedy himself learned to his regret in the Iran hostage crisis. But in Kennedy's case, the situation is even more complicated. Any candidate tries to emphasize those issues in a campaign with which he is seen to have greater expertise or identification than his opponents. Kennedy is probably the undisputed champion of government action to aid the dispossessed and the downtrodden. If the 1984 electorate is upset with perceived administration indifference toward the plight of the less fortunate, then Kennedy would almost surely be the political beneficiary.
But the question of the nuclear freeze and the matter of nuclear war is really not Kennedy's best issue. The whole "hand on the nuclear button," unlike the matters of jobs and equity and fairness, is very much a character sort of issue, in which the stability and judgment of the individual candidates, rather than their ideology or voting records, become important to the voters. Less than two years ago, Jimmy Carter ran successfully against Edward Kennedy in the spring by effectively making the senator and his character, the main issue, and unsucccessfully against Ronald Reagan in the fall when the challenger's stability and judgment did not become the central issues. For Edward Kennedy, the nuclear freeze issue may turn out to be a far better issue to run on in 1982 than to have the presidential decision made on in 1984.