When Democrats Get Locked Out They Still Stand Tall

by Burr Deming

The emotional effect of the assassination was devastating. Bobby Kennedy was crushed at the thought of a world without Jack.

Life as Attorney General was unbearable now that his brother was gone. But inactivity was worse. Afraid of heights since childhood, he now climbed mountains and skied down slopes that were almost cliff-sides.

The years of struggle against racial injustice more blatant than he had imagined had pushed him into a new awareness of human suffering, human anger, and the need for healing.

A campaign for public office seemed unavoidable. An aging antagonist of President Kennedy was now strolling toward re-election in New York State. Bobby finally took the leap.

I shall resign from the Cabinet to campaign for election. I shall devote all my effort and whatever talents I possess to the State of New York.

This I pledge.

– Robert Kennedy, announcing for the US Senate, August 4, 1964

But it was too soon. President Kennedy had been taken suddenly, less than a year before. It became obvious to those around him that his heart was not in it. And there were other drawbacks. He had no clearly articulated message.

And he was far from the natural speaker his brother had been. Decades later, his daughter Kathleen remembered:

I remember as a little girl, watching him practice over and over in front of the mirror. And he was trembling. I mean, it wasn’t easy.

When he ran for Senate in 1964, it was hard for him sometimes to get out his sentences and to talk about what he wanted.

– Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, June 5, 2008

As the election approached, it looked very close. Robert Kennedy’s chances were fading.

It is nearly forgotten now, but the image of one incident took the country by storm just a week before ballots were to be cast. And it made John Kennedy’s brother, the former Attorney General, the sadly mourning Bobby Kennedy, mad as hell. His campaign was suddenly electrified. It took on a new energy.

The empty chair was an old tactic often used against opponents who refused to debate. Robert Kennedy had been reluctant. He thought the image of a young politician beating up on an aging New York icon would backfire.

Senator Keating, the Republican candidate for re‐election, used the device of an empty chair to symbolize what he said was Mr. Kennedy’s “utter contempt for the voters of New York” by “refusing” to join the debate.

– The New York Times, October 28, 1964

The problem was Robert Kennedy was there. He had been locked outside, barred from getting in.

The chair had a large sign on it: “Robert Kennedy” and Senator Keating gestured toward it as he accused his opponent of cowardice. Kennedy, he said, was afraid to face him.

“I wanted this debate,” Mr. Keating said, “for the benefit of the people of New York and also for my own sake because I know a face‐to‐face meeting between my opponent and myself would expose his ruthless attempt to destroy my lifetime character.”

– The New York Times, October 28, 1964

Meanwhile, Kennedy was trying to get into the building.

But last night Mr. Kennedy was barred by WCBS‐TV guards from entering the Keating stu­dio. He protested, “I’m here to debate—Senator Keating has in­vited me to debate,” but the guards were adamant.

– The New York Times, October 28, 1964

Television sets across the state carried a split screen. On one side was Senator Kenneth Keating pointing to an empty chair, angrily accusing Robert Kennedy of being too timid to face him. On the other side of the screen was Robert Kennedy, outside on the street, demanding to be allowed in, barred by locked doors as adamant security guards blocked his way.

The entire staged debate, the contrived empty chair, the harsh denunciation of the cowardly Bobby Kennedy, too timid to show up, all backfired.

This is how it ended a week later:

For all of us who were elected on this day, all of us now have a responsibility. Our job has just begun.

– Robert F. Kennedy, election night, November, 1964

I thought about Robert Kennedy, and the phony empty chair debate of 1964, as I watched Republicans react to their legislative defeat more than half a century later. Health care repeal was on it’s way down.

We had no Democrat support. We had no votes from the Democrats. They weren’t going to give us a single vote, so it’s a very difficult thing to do.

– President Donald Trump, March 24, 2017

Yes. President Trump blamed Democrats for the defeat.

With no Democrat support, we couldn’t quite get there, with just a very small number of votes short in terms of getting our bill passed.

– President Donald Trump, March 24, 2017

After more conservative setbacks, Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor:

Our friends on the other side decided early on they didn’t want to engage with us in a serious way, in a serious way, to help those suffering under Obamacare.

– Mitch McConnell, July 28, 2017

It turns out Democrats had tried to participate. They could not agree to wiping out health care for millions of people, but they did acknowledge that fixes could, and should, be made. In truth, the outermost fringes of conservatism had taken control of enough of the Republican legislative caucus in past years to succeed in destabilizing key elements of the Affordable Care Act. Now, markets needed to be stabilized. Adjustments needed to be applied.

Democrats made private and public appeals. One letter was made public after it was rejected by Mitch McConnell.

We stand ready to work on … reforms to the current system and urge you to join us in advancing measures that would have an immediate impact on improving the health care system for American families.

But Democrats were locked out. Meetings were held in which they were not invited. In some cases, Democrats were forcefully warned not to show up. If they did, they would find only locked doors and guards.

The Speaker of the House was probably the most honest in the effort to keep Democrats out. He was concerned that President Trump might wilt under pressure and be tempted to actually allow Democrats to participate in health care reform.

What I worry about, Nora, is that if we don’t do this, then he’ll just go work with Democrats to try and change Obamacare, and that’s not going to — that’s hardly a conservative thing.

– Paul Ryan, March 30, 2017

It was Robert Kennedy and Kenneth Keating revisited.

Republicans were debating an empty chair …

They weren’t going to give us a single vote…decided early on they didn’t want to engage with us

Democrats were on the sidewalk, confronting locked doors and Republican guards.

… work with Democrats … that’s hardly a conservative thing

As Republicans denounced Democrats for refusing to participate, Democrats were standing tall, demanding to be allowed in.

Via FairandUnbalanced….

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