For Joe Kennedy, the urgency of now
He’s yet to articulate rationale for a Senate challenge, but that may not matter
LET THE WORD go forth that Joe Kennedy is likely to cap several weeks of fevered speculation with an announcement that he’s ready for the torch to be passed to a new generation.
But are Massachusetts voters ready? And what, exactly, will be the argument for doing so?
The 38-year-old congressman has turned the slow-news days of late summer into a frenzy of political chatter by confirming this week that he is weighing a run for the US Senate seat held by Ed Markey. With an earnest reputation, affable bearing — and gold-plated name — the Newton lawmaker would undoubtedly pose a formidable challenge to Markey. But Kennedy has yet to articulate a clear rationale for a run.
“I hear the folks who say I should wait my turn, but with due respect — I’m not sure this is a moment for waiting,” Kennedy wrote in a Facebook post on Monday confirming he is considering a run.
Kennedy hasn’t said yet. “Our system has been letting down a lot of people for a long time, and we can’t fix it if we don’t challenge it. I’ve got some ideas on how to do that,” he said in his Facebook post. He stuck to the same theme at an appearance on Tuesday in Newton, remaining vague on what his ideas are.
Kennedy may simply think the moment is right to dislodge a fellow Democrat and move up the ladder. Many have speculated that he likes his chances better in a race against Markey than in a scramble for an open seat should Markey retire after another term or should Sen. Elizabeth Warren win the White House next fall. That contest could draw plenty of compelling competitors, such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley or Attorney General Maura Healey.
While a liberal incumbent US senator in a decidedly blue state would not typically seem vulnerable to a Democratic primary challenge, Markey is hardly a commanding figure on the statewide stage.
After decades in the House, he only landed a Senate seat six years ago. A June poll by Suffolk University showed just 39 percent of voters statewide viewed him favorably versus 25 percent who view him unfavorably. A sizable 36 percent said they were unsure or hadn’t heard of him.
A Kennedy-Markey matchup doesn’t seem likely to turn on sharp differences in ideology. If anything, Kennedy strikes a more moderate profile than the 73-year-old Markey, a cosponsor with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Green New Deal and early supporter of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all legislation.
Kennedy has waved off talk about a race that would hinge on his age difference with Markey, who was elected to the House in 1976, four years before Kennedy was born. It will be enough to let the contrast, which would be in plain view, speak for itself.
While a Kennedy run might seem geared to appeal to those with an appetite for generational change in leadership, Markey’s strong leadership on climate change and other issues has galvanized support for him among some younger activists. He recently picked up the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement, a national initiative of young people fighting to stop climate change.
“Almost every single person I knew under 35 was supporting Ayanna,” said Jonathan Cohn, the 30-year-old chairman of the issues committee of the liberal advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts. “I don’t know a single person under 35 who’s backing Joe Kennedy,” he said of Kennedy’s not-yet-announced candidacy.
Cohn says framing a possible Markey-Kennedy primary as a generational showdown may be the wrong way to think of it. “It doesn’t seem as much a generational shift as a return,” he said, “a kind of continuation of Kennedy dominance in Massachusetts politics or Massachusetts Senate seats.”
Kennedy’s great-uncles, John F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy, represented Massachusetts in the Senate for a total of 55 years. Older voters for whom the family name still carries considerable meaning might be particularly open to a Kennedy candidacy, a campaign that could be fueled by a potent combination of nostalgia and youth.
“This has been the easiest call I’ve ever made in politics,” said Jamie Hoag, a former deputy counsel to Gov. Deval Patrick and part of a small band of LGBT activists who recently formed a group urging Kennedy to run. Hoag said he’s excited by the passion Kennedy brings to issues. “I know it may sound ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’-like,” he said, referring to the 1939 movie about an idealistic young senator vowing to change the ways of Congress.
As he’s moved ahead full-steam toward a reelection race, Markey claims he’s never felt more energized to tackle forward-looking issues like climate change, and says he’s eager to do battle against Trump administration policies.
Markey seems eager to push aside any consideration of his age and to channel instead the sentiments shared by Kennedy’s grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, in a well-known speech delivered at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1966.
“This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease,” Kennedy said.
Bachrach, who served as campaign manager for Markey’s initial congressional victory 43 years ago, has been outspoken on the need for baby boomers to make way for younger leaders. In a commentary piece last year for CommonWealth, he said that was why he was giving up the reins, at age 65, as head of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “America yearns for fresh faces and a fresh start,” he wrote, saying the problem was particularly acute with elected officeholders and even touting the idea of term limits.
Bachrach said he still believes that, but it comes with some qualification. “I’m a big believer in next generation leadership,” he said. “But I also believe it has to be more than next generation. It has to be based either on ideology or new ideas or vision.”
Scott Ferson, who served as a spokesman for Ted Kennedy in the early 1990s, said Joe Kennedy has not yet “formulated the public rationale” for a run. But he said the young congressman has little reason to hold back simply because Markey has been a solid senator.
“There’s no reward for doing the right thing in politics. If you say, well, but Ed’s doing a good job — that’s just not how people vote,” said Ferson. “The question will be whether there’s a constituency for ‘the urgency of now,’” he said about a Kennedy candidacy.
Amidst the current wave of upheaval in which old rules are being cast aside about candidates waiting their turn or not waging primary challenges, the prospect of a Markey-Kennedy duel is creating mixed feelings among some who have been part of the disruption.
“Robust primaries are, if anything, good for the party,” said Alex Goldstein, who served as communications strategist for Pressley’s insurgent Democratic primary upset last year. He is nonetheless supporting Markey.
That said, he’s not sure questions about specific policy positions that a Kennedy challenge would be based on are that important right now.Among Democratic activists in the Trump era, there’s “a sense the world is on fire,” Goldstein said. “All of the typical rules about who is called to serve and when — a lot of that has been obliterated. I don’t know that that is going to be huge hurdle” for Kennedy.