Last week’s WGBH debate between Senator Ed Markey and challenger Congressman Joe Kennedy took me back to August, 1979. Joe Kennedy’s uncle Ted was about to challenge fellow Democrat and incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Presidency. Seasoned CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd went to Hyannisport to interview Kennedy. The network set aside a full hour for the program. Frustrated by the often incoherent answers the Senator was providing, Mudd looked at Kennedy and posed a softball question, which Mudd later recalled as “a real slow pitch.”
“Why do you want to be President?” he asked. Kennedy paused. “Well, um…..um….were I to make the, uh, the announcement to run….,” and he rambled on about his belief in the greatness of the country, the complex issues it had faced in the past and still faced, and he finally said something about bringing “a sense of restoration” and how “it is imperative to move forward.” The headlines came to refer to that interview as The Day the Presidency was Lost.
I thought of this when WGBH moderator Margery Eagan on Tuesday asked this younger generation Kennedy, “Why are you running to unseat a man who has championed so many of the policies that you support?” It was a simple variation on what has come to be known as “the Roger Mudd question.” Congressman Kennedy’s answer went along the lines of, “This election, this time around, so much of what we care about, everything that we care about, is on the line. At this moment, we have to make sure that we have a U. S. Senator that gives everything he can to guide this state and this Commonwealth……At this moment, there is a special opportunity and obligation that comes with it.” It made my toes curl.
Co-moderator Jim Braude followed up by asking Kennedy about Markey. “Has he been a good Senator?” Kennedy’s answer, “Absolutely, he has been a good Senator…..He has made a good contribution. The issue is that, at this moment [there’s that phrase again] given what is at stake,” and then Kennedy talked about the need to restore power to the Democratic Party across the country.
Their views on policy are virtually identical. Markey has a track record of getting legislation passed on those issues. Kennedy even acknowledges Markey has been a leader on the environment, the existential issue of our day. Markey has gotten gun safety legislation passed, most recently restoring funding for research in the area. He has advanced policies on nuclear energy, immigration, net neutrality and other cutting edge technology matters.
They differ slightly on the conditions for drawing down troops in Afghanistan. They also differ on fundraising, with Kennedy embracing the so-called People’s Pledge barring all outside organizations from spending on behalf of a candidate. Markey wants to shape the approach so that certain non-profits are not swept into the ban. Their positions on Medicare for All and dealing with economic inequality are virtually indistinguishable.
The bottom line is that what separates them is age, some 35 years of it. As Braude noted, Markey first went to Washington before Kennedy was born. That’s the dividing line, wrapped in Kennedy’s language that it’s all about power and the imperative to “leverage the power that comes with the Massachusetts Senate seat.” He doesn’t say how exactly that would happen or how Markey is failing in that regard.
So why is he really running to unseat Markey? Could it be that something in the Congressman’s DNA impels him to take steps toward restoring the Presidency to the family dynasty? Is it possible that he sees others in the Massachusetts delegation treated more favorably by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is frustrated by an apparent lack of upward mobility in the House? Or is it simply that he wants to beat Boston Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and others to the punch if Elizabeth Warren’s seat opens up (in 2020 or 2024) or Markey decides on his own that he won’t run again in 2026.
As I have written before, Kennedy, “scion of Massachusetts political royalty, …is the most down-to-earth of the clan, charming, bright, articulate, hard-working and, yes, even humble. A Peace Corps alum, fluent in Spanish, Kennedy graduated from Stanford and Harvard Law School, worked in non-profits serving the young and disadvantaged, and as an assistant district attorney. In the House, he has developed relationships across the country and across the aisle.” I have credited him with seriousness of purpose. But, to quote him, “at this moment,” I don’t see that. I see raw opportunism and self-advancement (yes, yes, all politicians have that to some degree), and ambition in the right circumstances can be a good thing. But the stakes this year are too great for an unnecessary intra-party battle for a safe seat.
Kennedy speaks about the need to restore power to the Democratic Party across the country, but the human talent and millions of dollars that will be deployed on this Senate campaign and on the race to fill Kennedy’s seat in Congress would have been far better spent in key Senate races, like Sara Gideon’s against Susan Collins in Maine, Mark Kelly’s against Martha McSally in Arizona and Amy McGrath’s against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. But there’s no going back now.
No one has a right to a seat in perpetuity. But frankly, in the Massachusetts Senate race, the young alpha has not yet made the case for casting out the old but effective lion. There will be more debates and further vetting to come that could change that, but, “at this moment,” it’s hard to imagine.
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