Sen. Edward Kennedy's lack of enthusiasm for the second presidential candidacy of Mr. Carter of Plains, Ga., is now an important factor in the American political equation.
The senator from Massachusetts has given his official "support" to the Carter candidacy. He has said that he will work for it during the election campaign. But in Madison Square Garden last Thursday night he did not express that support , or commit himself to working for it, in such manner as to give a clear signal to his own devoted followers of the left.
Those followers are unhappy over the defeat of their leader and hero. They are so unhappy that some have already left the fold of the Democratic Party. Others are edging toward the gates and looking over toward that other new fold which John Anderson has set up and to which he is inviting all disgruntled Democrats.
It does not follow that a flow of left-wing Democrats from the Carter to the Anderson fold would necessarily defeat Mr. Carter. One must always remember that during the famous 1948 campaign the same left-wing elements which now watch Senator Kennedy for their cue went tripping off into the political wild blue yonder after their Pied Piper, Henry Wallace. And while the Democratic Party left went off into Wallace land the extreme right of the old South formed a "Dixiecrat" movement. Deserted and execrated from both left and right, Harry Truman was presumed to be a sure loser. His poll ratings were almost as low as are those of President Carter. Yet Mr. Truman won the election.
However, Mr. Carter is not as effective a campaigner as was Harry Truman in his prime. Nor is it likely that he can improve his histrionic style during the campaign. Noble phrases do no take off and soar from his tongue. They seem to dribble away. Senator Kennedy improved his own campaign style enormously during the primaries. Mr. Carter's delivery is no better now than it was four years ago. The most obvious thing one can say about the campaign right now is that Mr. Carter could lose
Whether he does lose depends, heavily, on whether Senator Kennedy's asserted support for the party turns out to be pro forma, or serious.
The senator is a powerful campaigner. He could not win the Democratic nomination for himself. He had too many liabilities. But he did win the devotion of the left wing of the party and he did preach the old religion of the New Deal to the faithful of the party. And they like it and they watch him now for a sign. Does he truly want them to stay loyal to the party and work hard for the reelection of Mr. Carter? Or would he be happiest if they gave the party pro forma support like his own but allowed the election to go to Mr. Reagan?
His signals to his eager followers are ambiguous. His appearance on the platform in Madison Square Garden during the ritualistic rally of party leaders at the end of the Democratic convention was a bare minimum. Less would have been a demonstration of active hostility. In the sign language of politics he was saying to his followers: "Let's wait and see how we really want to play out this hand. We may or may not want to see this man have another four years in the White House."
Another way of saying the same thing is that his power as one of the great political barons of the times remains unspent, uncommitted, in hand, and available for use whenevers its positive use might best serve the long-term interests of the senator. He is like some medieval magnate who comes to the field of battle with his followers under control, such control that he can choose the moment and the side for their use.
He is a potential kingmaker like Shakespeare's Warwick, that "setter up and plucker down of Kings." From his present position he could lead his forces into the fray on Mr. Carter's side and very possibly starve the Anderson camp into futility and reelect Mr. Carter, or so nearly sit it out on the sidelines. that Mr. Reagan would become the winter.
The role of the kingmaker depends heavily on ability to withhold forces until the truly decisive moment, and then use them to maximum and advantage. What does Senator Kennedy want most -- a voice in administration polisymaking, or the nomination for himself in 1984? Is he holding back for a higher price than the Carter HO is yet willing to pay?
At the moment there are more questions than answers. The essential fact is that Senator Kennedy has, by withholding enthusiastic support as an independent political force. He can be the kingmaker of 1980.