PAUL TSONGAS was a remarkable man, and his untimely death on Jan. 18 unleashed a flood of memories and appreciations. In the obituaries last week and in the recollections of those who knew him, there were tributes aplenty: To his courageous fight with cancer. To his fierce pride in his hometown of Lowell. To the immense love he bore his family.
There were long glances back, these last few days, at Tsongas's quixotic and inspiring 1992 presidential campaign, at his three years in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps, at his decade in Congress. Yet somehow, amid all the remembrance of this man's life, his signal political achievement was scanted.
The defining hour of Paul Tsongas's political career did not come with his first election to the Lowell City Council. It did not come when he entered the US House in 1975, or when he announced his campaign for the White House 16 years later. It came on June 14, 1980, when he delivered the keynote address at the 33rd national convention of Americans for Democratic Action.
The ADA had long stood for liberalism unreconstructed, for government activism on the scale of the New Deal. Its members -- among them John Kenneth Galbraith, the archliberal Harvard economist, and "Wimpy" Winpisinger, the boss of the International Association of Machinists -- had for years been yanking the Democratic Party leftward. In 1980, the ADA was an enthusiastic backer of Ted Kennedy's insurgent campaign for president, disdaining Jimmy Carter as -- in Winpisinger's words -- "that little fink" in the White House.
Only moments before Tsongas delivered his address, in fact, Kennedy had appeared before the convention. Wildly, the delegates cheered, as "Kennedy All The Way" signs waved in the air.
And then the other senator from Massachusetts, a 39-year-old freshman with little clout or seniority, stepped to the microphone to deliver a blunt and jolting message: Kennedy-style liberalism was bankrupt.
"Fewer young people are joining the liberal cause in 1980 than in the 1960s," Tsongas warned. "Liberalism is at a crossroads. It will either evolve to meet the issues of the 1980s or it will be reduced to an interesting topic for Ph.D.-writing historians."
Old liberals, he admonished, were stuck in the past. They obsessed on Vietnam and federal programs to feed the hungry, while younger Americans saw food stamps getting abused and the Soviet Union invading its neighbors.
"This is a different generation," said Tsongas. "And if we do not speak to this generation in its terms, liberalism will decline. And if we do not meet these needs, liberalism should decline."
The delegates' reaction, he later noted dryly, was not exactly an ovation. But his purpose that day was not to be lauded. It was to be listened to.
On issue after issue, liberals were blind to reality, he declared.
"For example: We denounce nuclear power. But no nuclear power means one certain result -- massive reliance on coal. Any environmentalist who can accept … massive coal-burning is not an environmentalist by my standards.
"For example: Afghanistan is crushed by … Soviet military power. Where is the concern? Where is the outrage? Why should it be left to conservatives to champion the cause of the Afghan freedom fighters?
"Liberalism must extricate itself from the 1960s …. We must move on to the pressing problems of the 1980s, and we must have answers that seem relevant." Americans are frustrated, he said, and "many are looking to Ronald Reagan for leadership."
Reaction to the speech was electric. Hard-core liberals accused Tsongas of "selling out," or of betraying his senior Senate colleage. But from younger liberals and moderate Democrats came a deluge of praise, and thousands of requests for copies of his speech. Daniel Patrick Moynihan pronounced it the best address delivered to an ADA gathering since his own in 1967. A year later, the speech was expanded into a widely praised book, The Road From Here.
Some leftists, especially those tied to labor unions, never forgave Tsongas. But the accuracy of his warning grew increasingly apparent: Old-style liberalism had burnt out. Conservatism was on the rise. Democrats would adapt -- or die.
On that June day in 1980, a new political animal was born. It went by various names -- neoliberal, Atari Democrat, New Democrat. Tsongas himself came to adopt the tag of "probusiness liberal," and he never stopped making the case for a liberalism grounded in growth and productivity, not class warfare and government giveaways. "You can't have employment and despise employers," he would say. "No goose, no golden eggs."
It took a while for his message to sink in. The Democrats lost the White House in November 1980; 12 years elapsed before they regained it. But when they did, it was not with a Kennedyesque liberal. It was with a candidate who promised to cut taxes, support free trade, and end welfare as we know it. Bill Clinton trod the path Tsongas blazed.
In 1980, liberalism was about to tumble off a left-wing cliff, and Paul E. Tsongas sounded a warning. His alarm helped save the Democratic Party, which owes him a debt it can never repay.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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