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Joe Kennedy’s Utterly Pointless, Utterly Consequential Campaign

His Bay State tussle with Ed Markey is illuminating some raw truths about youth, dynasty, and a Democratic Party stuck between generations.

Greg Nash/Getty Images

On November 4, 1979, CBS aired an hour-long primetime special on the career and anticipated presidential campaign of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Incidentally, this was the very same night Americans learned that hostages had been taken in Tehran—altogether, a busy and politically consequential evening. After an introductory montage on Kennedy’s life, the broadcast opens on a bright summer day in Hyannis Port, where Kennedy and his mother are seen strolling through the family compound. In a dry voiceover, CBS’s Roger Mudd concedes the imagery’s value to the Kennedy campaign. “This is probably the way a mother whose son is running for the presidency would like a documentary about him to begin,” he says. “A nice walking shot of the two of them as he sets off with her grandchildren on a summer camping trip.”

But it’s quickly established that the trip itself is actually one of the family’s meandering publicity tours—taken with journalists and handlers in tow. “This is the raw material for a magazine cover story,” Mudd says. “Less than an hour in an amusement park near Springfield gives the press plenty of time to watch and compare notes.” The program then cuts to another event: the annual Robert F. Kennedy memorial tennis tournament. “It is a command performance for all the Kennedys,” Mudd remarks atop footage of Ted and his wife. “Even for Joan Kennedy, whose appearances with her husband are now so rare, the marriage seems to exist only on select occasions.”

In less than ten minutes, a special that could have been a public relations coup had revealed itself as a debacle. And the worst was yet to come. Mudd would go on not only to a detailed reexamination of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death at Chappaquiddick—including a visit to the site of the accident and a long, tense exchange with Kennedy—but an interview in which Kennedy would be infamously stumped by the softest of all softball questions: “Why do you want to be president?”

Nearly ten seconds pass before Kennedy begins a dry, elliptical answer about measuring up to the rest of the developed world on productivity, inflation, and unemployment. The remainder of the interview hasn’t been remembered as well, but Kennedy’s response to Mudd’s next inquiry was just as awful.

“What would you do different from Carter?”

“Well, in which particular areas?”

Mudd is visibly perplexed. “Well ... just take the question of ... of leadership.”

“Well. It’s ... on ... you have to come to grips with the different issues that we’re facing,” Kennedy replied. “You have to deal with each of the various questions that we’re talking about. Whether it’s in the questions of the economy, whether it’s in the areas of energy.”

Kennedy would actually perform much better in the primary than the botched launch of his campaign and Carter’s incumbency might have led one to expect. The hostage crisis weakened Carter, and Ted Kennedy was, at the end of the day, a Kennedy. Nevertheless, he lost, and no Kennedy has made a run for the White House since.

Joe Kennedy III could have given it a go this election. It’s surely occurred to him since the Democratic presidential primary ended that a young, white moderate with high name recognition, a heroic family narrative treasured by older Democrats hungry for national redemption, and some pull among nonwhite voters might have done well. But he decided instead—with a chariness he’s probably confused with humility—on a Senate campaign against an affable old liberal he had few policy differences with by the time he finished his sprint left earlier this year. And from the moment he stepped into the race, journalists who wouldn’t have bothered asking Kennedy how he’d differ from Trump have hit him again and again with the obvious questions: What would you do differently from Ed Markey? Why, exactly, do you want to be a senator?

The real answer to the latter question, of course, is that the Senate will be an auspicious perch to launch a presidential bid from somewhere down the line. In an interview for a May profile in Boston Magazine, Kennedy didn’t even try to categorically deny this. “When I asked him, point blank, if he was after the Senate platform in 2020 to get that chance to introduce himself to the American public at large for a presidential run sometime in the future,” Michael Damiano reported, “he said that, at the moment, he is focused only on the job at hand.”

In fairness, Kennedy has gone through the motions of offering a case against Markey. Last month, for instance, Kennedy’s campaign put out a memo criticizing Markey for leaving several towns off a map on his website listing services he’d provided to various communities in the state—evidence, they said, that Markey had lost touch with his constituents and failed to meet their needs. It was then reported that three of those towns needed far more help than the Kennedy campaign had imagined: They had been razed and submerged under a reservoir in the 1930s.

Kennedy also contends that Markey⁠—best known as the Senate’s chief advocate for the Green New Deal, the most ambitious environmental policy agenda in American history—hasn’t made good use of his public profile as a senator. “With due respect to Senator Markey, who is a good man, there’s more to this job than the way you vote and the bills that you file,” he told a voter in February. “It comes with an ability to leverage that platform to address the issues we’re talking about and, with due respect to the senator, if you’re not going to leverage that now, given what is at stake for the Democratic Party, for the values that we hold dear in our commonwealth, that have been targeted by this administration literally from day one, if you’re not doing it now, then when?” It’s never been clear what Kennedy meant by all that. He intends to keep it that way.

Another major argument Kennedy has made for himself ⁠was capsulized in a remarkable email campaign manager Nick Clemons sent to supporters after The Boston Globe endorsed Markey a few weeks ago. “The Globe editorial board had their mind made up about Joe since before he even got in this race,” he wrote. “We heard the final decision was a close call, but in the end, the establishment voices won out. Add it to the long list of forces in this state that circle the wagons when the status quo gets challenged.”

The voting public is always asked to put up with a lot of nonsense during campaigns. Career politicians condemning career politicians, incumbents running as outsiders at war with Washington and The System, millionaires and billionaires declaring themselves tribunes for the common man—these are some of the deceptions and delusions our politics are founded upon. The notion that we may be rid of them someday might be another.

But whatever happens in this particular race, Joe Kennedy III’s denouncement of the Massachusetts political establishment⁠—that bromide against the status quo delivered by a campaign to put a member of America’s foremost political dynasty back in the United States Senate—should live on in memory as one of the most shameless ploys ever attempted in modern Democratic politics, an act of hypocrisy so surreal and audacious it practically liquifies the rational mind. It is, in fact, exactly the kind of brazen distortion Democrats have taken to calling Trumpian. Markey hasn’t gone there yet, but he did go out of his way to invoke the Kennedy family in a viral exchange over super political action committee spending and negative advertising at a debate last week.

“I’m sure your father is watching right now,” he said. “Tell your father right now that you don’t want money to go into a super PAC that runs negative ads! Just tell your twin brother and tell your father that you don’t want any money to be spent on negative ads in Massachusetts in 2020 in the era of Donald Trump.”

“I’ve said that multiple times,” Kennedy replied.

“Have you told your father that?”

“I’ve said that publicly.”

“Have you said it to your father?”

“Publicly! Senator...”

“Tell your father that you don’t want the money to be spent on negative ads.”

Markey’s confidence that this line of attack could help him is perhaps a sign of how dramatically the race and the state’s politics as a whole may have shifted lately. A 2011 survey found that 25 percent percent of Massachusetts Democrats approved of a nonexistent Kennedy invented by pollsters. Polls taken in the weeks just before this flesh-and-blood Kennedy announced his candidacy last September showed him ahead of Markey by double digits. The latest University of Massachusetts⁠-Amherst poll has Markey ahead, by 15.

Markey can credit that to the coalition that’s assembled in his defense. He’s being backed not only by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Sunrise Movement, and other climate activists appreciative of his support for the Green New Deal, but also well-established progressive organizations like MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL as well as figures like Ady Barkan, Sara Nelson, and Zephyr Teachout. His allies in the Senate include ⁠not only fellow Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, another prominent progressive, but also the head of the caucus, Chuck Schumer, and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the chamber’s most conservative Democrat and an opponent of the Green New Deal. Markey’s also been backed by a long and ideologically diverse list of state and local officials.

The breadth of Markey’s support might perplex progressives who came to know Markey through the Green New Deal, but it’s the enthusiasm Markey’s managed to generate among millennial and Gen Z activists that should be surprising. As Kennedy has pointed out in the campaign’s rare moments of substance, Markey supported NAFTA, the 1994 crime bill, and the Iraq War as a congressman. In 1976, shortly after his election to the House and two years into a firestorm over integration in Boston that captured national attention, he said he opposed busing. It’s not a critique Kennedy would make at this juncture, but Markey’s record actually bears an uncanny and unflattering resemblance to Joe Biden’s.

If Kennedy did level that attack, Markey’s defenders would probably respond that Markey is something like a Joe Biden who gives a damn—a longtime creature of the Washington consensus, yes, but one who’s atoning for it by backing some of the most transformative legislation on offer now, including a climate bill in keeping with Markey’s lifelong interest and leadership on environmental issues. Realistically, however, Kennedy wouldn’t differ all that much from Markey if he was elected. And the fact that Kennedy would like to be president someday probably offers him an incentive to tread carefully with progressives. He knows the party is moving in their direction and he’ll have to make up for having annoyed them so deeply if he wins next month.

Given this, the Markey-Kennedy race is best understood as yet another referendum on the concept of generational change within the ranks of the Democratic Party rather than a fight between competing ideological factions. It would be swell if there were more young people in Democratic leadership, in the Senate, and in government more generally. We should argue so, not out of a belief that young people are special, but out of a commitment to the idea that young people should be able to participate in policymaking and governance as much as anybody else as a matter of principle. But this is plainly a second- or third-order concern for young Democratic voters. They back Markey and backed Sanders because representation ultimately matters far less than, for instance, passing legislation that might preserve civilization as we know it on this planet.

But the same can’t be said for young Democratic electeds who’ve become conspicuously frustrated with the grip older Democrats have on the party in recent years. They’ve made themselves restless with the conviction that their careers in Washington have hit roadblocks. And understanding this makes a number of the stranger recent developments in party politics legible—from the fairly pathetic and wholly non-ideological challenge to Nancy Pelosi’s speakership at the beginning of this Congress to the presidential candidacies of Pete Buttigieg, Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell. It even bears upon Kamala Harris’s selection as Biden’s running mate. When establishment figures talk about building the future of the Democratic Party, they’re talking about finally shoving off and handing the reins to the party’s aspiring Bidens and Obamas. Harris is both one of them and a signal that the rest of the party’s careerists should relax—that their patience will be rewarded soon.

Kennedy, though, has jumped the line, which speaks to the antipathy many major Democrats have registered about his bid. (“It’s ambition,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin told Politico last year. “For Ed’s sake, I don’t want a primary.”) But it also explains many of the endorsements he’s managed to pick up. A slew of his young colleagues in the House and one prominent former colleague—Krysten Sinema, his only endorsement from the Senate—are cheering him on. He’s their guy. “Many of his House colleagues are quietly rooting for him,” Politico’s Burgess Everett and Heather Caygle reported last year, “eager to demonstrate one of their own can advance without waiting until senators retire or their longtime leaders depart the top rungs of the House Democratic Caucus.”

All told, what we have in Massachusetts is a race between two candidates who, by any reasonable definition, ought to be considered members of the Democratic establishment and a primary defined more by intra-party grudges and personal aspirations than policy substance. That’s not to say, though, that progressives shouldn’t hope to strike a historic blow against nepotism, dynastic politics, and entitlement. No Kennedy has ever lost an election in Massachusetts. If it happens in September, the message will be clear: The Democratic Party is through indulging the empty ambitions of Camelot’s princes.