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Kennedy against the wind

"Sometimes a party must sail against the wind," said Senator Kennedy at the conclusion of his speech reaffirming the presidential candidacy that received such a setback in Iowa. The question is whether he now is sailing so much against the wind that he will become a party of one.

Before the speech an aide was quoted to the effect that, if Mr. Kennedy were going to lose, he at least wanted to go down saying what he believed. Assuming the speech did say what he believes, it was not always what he appeared to believe before, as the White House quickly pointed out. Yet the thrust of his Monday remarks marked a decisive return to the government-for-the-people liberalism which used to be widespread among Democrats but which Mr. Kennedy had seemed to be trimming on the campaign trail.

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Who is out of step now? Mr. Kennedy is challenging his fellow Democrats to decide.

Indeed, sometimes he seemed to be trying to revitalize the two-party system even within his own party. He painted President Carter as a Republican, something Republicans will hardy stand still for, and something Carter Democrats will hardly welcome either. After all, some voters in the fall might get the idea of going for the real thing.

Yet Republicans so far have not been criticizing Mr. Carter on Iran and Afghanistan as sharply as Mr. Kennedy did, though he offered less change in substantive policy than toward adopting a less hawkish perspective. Here he challenges voters again. Do they feel candidates should not ruffle the waters during crises, deciding afterwards whether a president has done a good job? Do they agree with the Kennedy view that "the exercise of dissent is the essence of democracy" -- even during a crisis in which the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan have stifled a dissenter like Sakharov? Or will they penalize Mr. Kennedy for taking a position like this? -- "If a President's policy is right, debate will strengthen the national consensus. If it is wrong, debate may save the country from catastrophe."

On domestic policy there should be no argument that the more debate the better. Here Mr. Kennedy opposes peacetime registration for the draft in almost as lonely a position as when he opposed a volunteer army and supported a fair draftd before young audiences during the Vietnam war. He steals some thunder from opponent Jerry Brown by favoring gasoline rationing and questioning the MX missile and nuclear power. He goes out on a limb for mandatory wage and price controls -- which, ironically, were last imposed under Republicans including present presidential contender John Connally. But Mr. Kennedy goes farther, to the position of some labor leaders that controls should also cover dividends, profits, interest rates, and rent.

There is evidence that he may find many citizens (57 percent according to Gallup last spring), if not many economists, ready to share the wage-price controls limb with him. His record supports his renewed commitments to such causes as tax reform and national health insurance.

Yet the political wind does seem to be blowing more toward antigovernment rhetoric than toward the Kennedy rhetoric that "government is not helpless to serve the public interest." Next month will show whether he is indeed a party of one or a debater with enough audience to keep arguing.

What complicates the choice he offers is the problem that defies political lines: Chappaquiddick. He addressed it briefly in a televised version of his speech, seeming to realize that his sticking to his bygone story under oath might not change many minds. It will be hard to tell how much the ballot box reflects the foreign and domestic issues he has now dramatically raised -- or the personal issue that casts a long shadow on them.


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