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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Did Kennedy break with Democrats on principle, or for positioning?

US Representative Joseph Kennedy III is seen in a Feb. 11, 2013 interview.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

US Representative Joseph Kennedy III is seen in a Feb. 11, 2013 interview.

It’s Kennedy Politics 101 or: how to break away from the Bay State’s famously lockstep delegation and get noticed in Washington.

In July 1987, then-freshman Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II was the only Massachusetts congressman to vote against an amendment on trade sanctions that was sponsored by Richard Gephardt, then a representative from Missouri.

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The vote, which went against the expected political grain, generated this kind Globe headline, “Joe Kennedy has his own path.”

Fast forward to July 2013, when Kennedy’s son — freshman Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III — was the only Massachusetts congressman to vote against an amendment that would have curtailed one aspect of the government’s power to snoop on American citizens.

The issues are different, but the same headline about carving out an independent, counterintuitive path could be written. Twenty-six years later, a vote that goes against the expected political grain sets a Kennedy apart and creates buzz.

That wasn’t his mission, insists Kennedy. He said he was motivated purely by principle and analysis, not strategy or politics — and he makes a strong argument for it.

The amendment Kennedy voted against was co-sponsored by two Michigan lawmakers — Representatives Justin Amash, a Republican; and John Conyers, a Democrat. Attached to a defense spending bill, the amendment would have defunded a program sponsored by the National Security Agency, which allows the government to track and collect hundreds of millions of phone records belonging to American citizens.

The Amash-Conyers amendment was defeated by 12 votes — 205-217 — meaning both sides achieved an unusually high degree of bipartisan support. In voting against it, Kennedy aligned himself with President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — but also with Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

Kennedy said he voted “no” after conferring with experts and receiving numerous classified briefings. Diving deep into the pros and cons led him to conclude “this program has saved lives,” he said.

While Kennedy said he believes the country “needs to have a debate about the balance of civil liberties and national security,’’ he also believes “we have to be thoughtful about how we conduct these reforms.” The country needs a proper balance between civil liberties and national security and “this amendment didn’t do it,” he said. (Back in 1987, his father said the Gephardt proposal was “a bad amendment.”)

It was the first time Kennedy broke with the rest of the Bay State delegation on a high-profile vote. But Kennedy said that calculation had nothing to do with his vote. “I have tremendous respect for our delegation. They are thoughtful and dedicated lawmakers . . . all are mentors to me. When it comes to issues particularly as large and important as national security and civil liberties, I tried hard to be as deliberative as I could.”

That, he said, is what he promised voters when he ran for Congress: “To evaluate hard issues as best I could and make tough votes when necessary.”

Kennedy’s vote was not well received by progressive Democrats who blog for the liberal website bluemassgroup.com. One speculated that Kennedy cast his vote to become “a Washington player.’’ Another called it “a rookie mistake” with Kennedy “being naive and deferential to the White House” and missing an opportunity to curtail NSA excesses.

But Kennedy said there is still opportunity and he will press for adequate reforms this fall. That will ultimately be the test of his vote on the Amash-Conyers amendment.

Will Congress revisit the matter of balance between privacy and national security, or has the door closed with this vote?

Kennedy may be perfectly sincere in arguing that he cast this vote on principle and isn’t trying to position himself in Washington — or in Massachusetts. But being a Kennedy means that a vote is never just a vote. Everyone reads future aspirations into your actions. His name is already mentioned in connection with the Senate seat just won by Democrat Ed Markey in June’s special election.

Similar speculation followed his father when he served in Congress. But in the end, that Joe Kennedy dropped out of politics. Now the son has taken up the torch.

History repeats itself. Especially Kennedy history.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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