Primary Colors: What is Joe Kennedy doing?

Graphic by Aidan Menchaca / The Tufts Daily

At a debate hosted by WGBH on Feb. 11, moderator Margery Eagan asked Representative Joe Kennedy III, “why are you running to defeat a man who’s championed so many of the same policies that you support?” What followed Eagan’s question was a tornado of buzzwords, progressive phrases and calls to action. But what was missing from Kennedy’s response was any kind of rationale for his own candidacy. 

“For this election, this time around, so much of what we care about — everything that we care about — is on the line,” Kennedy said. “There is a special opportunity and obligation that comes with [this senate seat]. Because voting the right way and filing the right bill: Mitch McConnell doesn’t care.”

In the midst of this word salad, moderator Jim Braude interjected to ask if Markey has been a good senator. “Absolutely, he’s been a good senator,” Kennedy responded.

In an Esquire piece referring to the Markey-Kennedy debate as “among the most desultory political events in memory,” legendary Bay State writer Charles Pierce also quotes the congressman’s opening statement. “If you can figure out why we should turf out a progressive of the caliber of Ed Markey based on that fog of words, you’re a helluva lot smarter than I am,” Pierce wrote.

I won’t spend much time dissecting the rest of the February debate because Kennedy’s opening statement perfectly distills the following hour. Kennedy presented a lofty oratory and progressive vision followed by similarly lofty answers to specific policy questions and concessions that Markey has been righteous where it counts.

During his opening statement, Markey laid out a crystal-clear case for his candidacy. “Thank you to your great audience, especially the young people over your shoulder. This whole debate should be about the future, their futures.”

Markey immediately outlined his progressive victories, most notably on climate. He introduced the Green New Deal, led the nuclear non-proliferation movement in Congress and worked with none other than Donald Trump to stop fentanyl-related deaths. And of course, Congressman Kennedy agrees with Senator Markey on his stance! Isn’t that something. 

I will concede one thing. Kennedy slammed Markey for supporting the 2002 authorization of military force against Iraq, which Kennedy was right in doing. The Iraq War was a century-defining calamity by any measure or standard. But why is this suddenly a sticking point with Kennedy? In 2020, 17 years after the war in Iraq began, Joe Kennedy III is suddenly positioning himself as a dovish, anti-war hero of the left. 

So, my question is this: Why did he support Hillary Clinton in 2016 over the famously anti-Iraq War Bernie Sanders? Is it a genuine awakening for Congressman Kennedy, or is it something else?

Ed Markey is not the Sunday show-bound, glitzy politician too many of us roll our eyes at. He’s the son of a milkman, not the heir to a political dynasty.