Eddie unloaded on Ted with this never-to-be-forgotten broadside against an opponent who just happened to be a younger brother of the president of the United States. "If your name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke." McCormack said with passion and anger. "But nobody’s laughing because his name is not Edward Moore. It’s Edward Moore Kennedy.”
Teddy clobbered Eddie by better than 2-to-1. The slogan of JFK’s brother was “He can do more for Massachusetts” — unsubtle, and effective. Kennedy went on to defeat a Republican with another great political name, George Cabot Lodge.
This year’s Senate race can’t touch that one, but it’s nearly as bitter, and it also involves a Kennedy.
The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Edward J. Markey, 74, has been in Washington for 44 years, 37 of those in the House. He’s an old-fashioned pol and longtime environmentalist. The latter has served him very well since it led him to co-sponsor the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the superstar of the left. Ocasio-Cortez has been championing Markey’s campaign, thus turning an old warhorse into a hero of young progressives.
That’s not what his opponent, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), expected. The 39-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy has become a star in his own right; in 2018, he offered a powerful response to President Trump’s State of the Union address from Diman Regional Vocational Tech High School in Fall River, Mass.
Fall River happens to be my hometown, so I confess to a soft spot for a guy who really gets the place and feels an urgency to build a cross-racial alliance for social justice (and against Trump) that includes the White working class.
The paradox of the contest is that it has become very bitter precisely because a lot of Democrats in the state like both men (my own disposition) and wish the race weren’t happening.
Markey’s supporters ask why Kennedy didn’t let Markey have one more term, given that their differences are minimal. Kennedy backers think it’s time the state had some youthful energy in the Senate and said their man could be a major voice in national politics, something Massachusetts voters have been accustomed to in their politicians since the time of the Adams family.
Most recent public polls look good for Markey. Kennedy’s strength could be larger than the polls suggest, and if there is a sleeper vote for Kennedy, it will come from the Black and Latino communities in a predominantly White state, and from the smaller cities and towns outside greater Boston, like the one I grew up in.
Markey’s swipe at the Kennedy legacy at the end of a video that quickly went viral — “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you,” Markey said, inverting JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” — has already inspired a backlash that might be similar to the one Eddie McCormack confronted. One immediate product of the backlash: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s unexpected endorsement of Kennedy. Pelosi told my colleague Karen Tumulty that she “wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw on the Kennedy family.”
But if the backlash is limited and Markey prevails, it will show that, even in Massachusetts, a very talented Kennedy cannot succeed in a Democratic primary over the power of AOC-led progressivism — and against a Watergate-era veteran canny enough to ally with the new wave.
If the Senate primary has history written all over it, the battle for Kennedy’s seat in a district that runs from the Boston suburbs south to my hometown — yes, this one is personal for me — tells us a lot about how politics is waged in the super PAC era.
Seven Democrats are vying for the seat, including an exceptional group of progressive women.
The leaders among them appear to be Jesse Mermell, a local official who also worked as an aide to former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick; Newton City Councilor and former prosecutor Becky Grossman; Natalia Linos, an epidemiologist (not a bad background in this moment); and Ihssane Leckey, a democratic socialist and a former bank regulator.
Another candidate in the race is Alan Khazei, who spent his life building AmeriCorps, the national service program, co-founding the great City Year education nonprofit and advocating for maintaining and expanding service efforts.
I’d probably just stop there but for an ad by a super PAC associated with Emily’s List accusing Khazei of being “willing to use women’s health as a bargaining chip.” Without supporting anyone in this contest, the group dedicated to electing pro-choice women to Congress has gone after Khazei and another male in the race, Newton City Council member Jake Auchincloss, who shared the top spot in a recent poll with Mermell, though nearly half the voters were undecided and the race is wide open.
The group’s intervention on behalf of women would be fair enough except for the nature of the attack on Khazei. During a debate in 2009 for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy (a primary Khazei lost), Khazei said he would have “reluctantly” voted for the final version of the 2010 Affordable Care Act even though it contained the Stupak-Pitts amendment barring funding for abortion. The Stupak amendment was later dropped in the Senate in exchange for a different approach to banning federal funding for abortion.
I covered all that and Khazei, an uncompromising pro-choicer, is right when he says he was simply siding at the time with Pelosi by accepting a part of the bill that he, like Pelosi, opposed for the larger benefit of getting Obamacare through the House.
On Tuesday, former representative Barney Frank and former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis (neither of whom is supporting anyone in the race) intervened in an unusual way to denounce the super PAC attack on Khazei as “inaccurate and unfair,” noted Khazei’s “strong” pro-choice position and argued that “millions of low-income people who now have health care would not have it” without the legislative maneuvering that eventually led to the Affordable Care Act.
They also took a swipe at what they called “retroactive, uninformed criticism based on the worst possible interpretation of the motives of those who are fighting the good fight.”
Khazei, whom I admire and consider a friend, is neither the first nor the last candidate to suffer from “the worst possible interpretation of” his motives. As I said, things can get pretty rough in Massachusetts — and in politics everywhere these days. But I do worry about how hard accountability can be in the era of super PACs and whether they will make politics as attractive to the next generation as it was to me when I was young.
By dint of growing up in a place where politics mattered — right alongside the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots and the Bruins — I fell in love with both the game and “the good fight” over things that matter. I can see why the rising generations may not fall in love so easily. But I’m hoping that the urgency of the moment, and the growing political power of women, grabs them the way those old fights involving Teddy, Eddie and George grabbed me.