Edward M. Kennedy's Speech on Economic Issues, 1980 Democratic Convention Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Senator Ted Kennedy waves to the crowd at the Democratic Convention, August 12, 1980. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Senator Ted Kennedy waves to the crowd at the Democratic Convention, August 12, 1980. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: Ted Kennedy

Date: August 12, 1980

Source: Kennedy, Ted. "Transcript of Kennedy's Speech on Economic Issues at Democratic Convention." The New York Times, August 13, 1980.

About the Author: Ted Kennedy (1932–) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children. After high school graduation, Kennedy entered the U.S. Army, serving from 1951 to 1953. After leaving the army, Kennedy graduated from Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School. In 1962, he was elected to the U.S. Senate to finish the term of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy (served 1961–1963). He since has been re-elected to seven terms, and he is the third most senior member of the Senate.


In 1978, Democratic voters favored Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy (D-Mass) by an astounding 2-to-1 margin over his rival, incumbent President Jimmy Carter (served 1977–1981) for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. Carter was unpopular because the nation was besieged by high interest rates, unemployment, a faltering economy, and high gasoline prices. At one point, the president's approval ratings plummeted to twenty-six percent, lower than President Richard Nixon's during the Watergate scandal.

On July 15, 1979, Carter stated in a national address to the American people that the nation was suffering from a "crisis of confidence." Many Americans believed that the president was causing the suffering, at least in part. Among those who held this opinion was Senator Kennedy. In 1972 and 1976, Kennedy, in light of past ethical lapses, had refused to run for president despite polls showing that he was the overwhelming Democratic favorite. Despite his past, however, Kennedy announced that he would challenge Carter for the party nomination in November 1979. In response, Carter said, "I'll whip his ass."

The Carter-Kennedy campaign was fascinating. Rarely do candidates with such an important power base in Washington as Kennedy's challenge an incumbent president of their own party. Moreover, Kennedy and Carter were very different kinds of men. Carter was a rural southerner from Georgia who did not readily identify with ethnic groups or labor unions—the core constituencies of the Democratic Party. In turn, Kennedy was a political product of the urban, multi-ethnic, labor-dominated Northeast. Unfortunately for Kennedy, four days after he declared his candidacy, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking fifty-two hostages. The crisis temporarily improved Carter's public standing, as Americans rallied around their president. Although Carter's approval ratings began to tumble again in March 1980, Kennedy was unable to capture enough primary delegates to win the nomination. At the Democratic convention in August, Carter was nominated on the first ballot—but the convention's high point was Kennedy's rousing concession speech.


Following Kennedy's concession speech, Convention Chairman Tip O'Neil could not bring the rowdy convention to order. For thirty-five minutes, unyielding cheers of "We Want Ted! We Want Ted!" reverberated within Madison Square Garden. To Kennedy supporters, Carter may have defeated their hero in the primaries, but they would return the favor on the convention floor when adopting the party's platform.

Unlike the Democratic National Convention in 1976, Carter had no ideological control over the delegates. He was at the mercy of Democratic Party regulars—elected officials and labor unions prepared to draft a party platform somewhat more liberal than Carter, and considerably more liberal than the American public. For the next seventeen hours, delegates fiercely debated twenty unresolved issues on the convention floor. In the end, Kennedy supporters won several major concessions, including provisions that seemingly repudiated the Carter record. For example, the platform called for a twelve billion dollar anti-recession program to create 800,000 new jobs. In a jab at Carter, it stated that the party would not pursue a policy of high interest rates and unemployment to fight inflation. The platform also opposed a balanced budget constitutional amendment. On social issues, the platform called for federal funding of abortions—a position Carter opposed, while supporting legal abortion. For the first time in American political convention history, the platform specifically opposed discrimination based on "sexual orientation." The platform also called for

universal health insurance and, against Carter's objections, denied support to all candidates not supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.

In the end, the platform was so skewed to the party's liberal base that it alienated America's middle class. Carter had no choice but to endorse the platform, however halfheartedly. The platform—together with the wide appeal of Ronald Reagan's (served 1981–1989) conservative message, the continuing Iran hostage crisis, and the third party candidacy of John Anderson—contributed to Carter becoming the first incumbent to lose the presidency since Herbert Hoover (served 1929–1933) in 1932.

Primary Source: Edward M. Kennedy's Speech on Economic Issues, 1980 Democratic Convention [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: On August 12, 1980, Ted Kennedy gave one of the most notable political speeches of his career. Drawing on traditional Democratic themes enunciated by Woodrow Wilson (served 1913–1921), Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945), and his brother, John F. Kennedy (served 1961–63), Senator Kennedy, in a subtle jab at President Carter, said, "let us offer new hope, new hope to an America uncertain about the present, but unsurpassed in its potential for the future."

Fairness and Compassion

The commitment I seek is not to out-worn views, but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.

The demand of our people in 1980 is not for smaller government or bigger government but for better government. Some say that government is always bad and that spending for basic social programs is the root of our economic evils. But we reply, the present inflation and recession costs our economy $200 billion a year. We reply, inflation and unemployment are the biggest spenders of all.

The task of leadership in 1980 is not to parade scapegoats or to seek refuge in reaction but to match our power to the possibilities of progress.

While others talked of free enterprise, it was the Democratic Party that acted—and we ended excessive regulation in the airline and trucking industry. We restored competition to the marketplace. And I take some satisfaction that this deregulation legislation that I sponsored and passed in the Congress of the United States.

As Democrats, we recognize that each generation of Americans has a rendevous with a different reality. The answers of one generation become the questions of the next generation, but there is a guiding star in the American firmament. It is as old as the revolutionary belief that all people are created equal, and as clear as the contemporary condition of Liberty City and the South Bronx. Again and again, Democratic leaders have followed that star, and they have given new meaning to the old values of liberty and justice for all.

We are the party of the New Freedom, the New Deal and the New Frontier. We have always been the party of hope. So this year, let us offer new hope—new hope to an America uncertain about the present but unsurpassed in its potential for the future.

To all those who are idle in the cities and industries of America, let us provide new hope for the dignity of useful work. Democrats have always believed that a basic civil right of all Americans is that their right to earn their own way. The party of the people must always be the party of full employment.

To all those who doubt the future of our economy, let us provide new hope for the reindustrialization of America. And let our vision reach beyond the next election or the next year to a new generation of prosperity. If we could rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II, then surely we can rein-dustrialize our own nation and revive our inner cities in the 1980's.

To all those who work hard for a living wage, let us provide new hope that their price of their employment shall not be an unsafe work place and a death at an earlier age.

To all those who inhabit our land, from California to the New York island, from the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, let us provide new hope that prosperity shall not be purchased by poisoning the air, the rivers and the natural resources that are the greatest gift of this continent.

Further Resources


Clymer, Adam. Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. New York: Perennial, 2000.

Drew, Elizabeth. Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Leamer, Laurence. The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963. New York: Harper, 2002.


Cadden, Vivian. "What Happened at Chappaquiddick." McCall's, August 1974.

Honan, William H. "The Kennedy Network." The New York Times Magazine, June 17, 1979.


The Carter Center. Available online at http://www.cartercenter.org (accessed June 9, 2003).

"Senator Edward M. Kennedy: Online Office." United States Senate. Available online at (accessed June 9, 2003).