At the risk of raining on the political world’s national narrative parade, Joseph P. Kennedy III didn’t take the glittering Kennedy dynasty out for an ill-advised joyride and wrap it around a tree.
Yes, he waged an entitled and impatient Senate primary challenge to a more accomplished incumbent, Ed Markey — and got his clock cleaned. But the notion so prevalent nationally that in doing so he somehow totaled a family dynasty is silly. The Kennedys haven’t been a dynasty for decades. Wipe the mystique from your glasses and that supposedly gleaming Kennedy juggernaut is actually a rusted 1960s Studebaker sinking into an overgrown field behind the barn.
But wait, doesn’t JPK III’s defeat mark the first time a Kennedy has lost an election in Massachusetts? Yes, but that oft-repeated cable TV formulation obscures more than it reveals, making it seem as though this state has been under a spell that lasted from John F. Kennedy’s first congressional run, in 1946, through to this week.
Um, no. To the degree that there was a Kennedy dynasty, it faltered in 1980, when Ted Kennedy lost his presidential primary bid to incumbent Jimmy Carter, and faded to impotence in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. (That’s not to say that Ted Kennedy didn’t become a legendary senator after his failed national bid, but one senator, no matter how formidable, does not a political dynasty make.)
Ted himself got an all-political-hands-on-deck scare in 1994, when Mitt Romney, then in his liberal Republican incarnation, took him on in a race that was a dead heat two months before election day. Ultimately, Kennedy posted a solid win, one that reflected his value to the state. Still, he pulled decisively ahead only after strafing Romney with an enfilade of negative TV ads.
After years of playing Hamlet, Joseph P. Kennedy II, then a congressman, launched a 1998-cycle campaign for governor, but when several controversies cast him in an imperious and unflattering light, he abandoned that quest. Younger brother Max, uncle to JPK III, explored a run for the House in 2001, to fill the South Boston-South Shore seat Joe Moakley had held but, after a few public appearances revealed him to be lighter than a dandelion seed, he floated off in a different direction.
In a proper accounting, then, JPK III’s ill-fated senatorial quest is really the third failed Kennedy candidacy or quasi-candidacy in Massachusetts alone. Which puts things in proper perspective: Yes, Boston is home to the John F. Kennedy Library, where it’s always Inauguration Day 1961, but for most of Massachusetts, the notion of the Kennedy family as a dynastic force faded long ago.
Nor should it come as any shock that JPK III lost. When Kennedy first got into the race, many primary voters knew relatively little about Ed Markey, who had been a House member for decades but had only served six and a half years as a senator. However, once that cloudy picture clarified and it became clear that Markey was the more progressive and accomplished candidate, the race began to reset.
Given Markey’s status as a national leader on climate, neither is it a surprise he became the big favorite of younger voters. There, his political partnership with, and endorsement by, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were particularly helpful.
So will this defeat spell the end of JPK III’s political career? No reason it should. Conducting a largely pointless primary challenge to a fellow liberal left a bad taste in many mouths, but Kennedy, who was a good congressman, can recover. Just look at Charlie Baker. He waged an off-putting, misbegotten, and unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2010 — and now he’s among the most popular governors in America.
Kennedy should do what Baker did after that loss: Sit down with those who will tell him the unvarnished truth about his political misadventure. People will forgive you a lot if you demonstrate that you’ve thought about your mistakes and learned from them.
Despite his loss, many Democrats retain a fondness for Kennedy, who, before this empty-calorie flight of the ego, had seemed smarter and less entitled than others in his family. He’ll get another chance — as long as he waits for the right opportunity.