Adrian Walker

Can a member of America’s oldest political dynasty sell himself as a voice for change?

Joe Kennedy III
Joe Kennedy III Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/File 2018/Associated Press

No one embodies the tension between the Democratic Party’s past and future, the clash between entrenched privilege and rising power, like Joseph Patrick Kennedy III.

After three terms in the House of Representatives, Kennedy is restlessly eyeing the US Senate seat held, for now, by Ed Markey. He came clean about his deliberations in a Facebook post earlier this week.

Still, facing a group of reporters in Newton Tuesday, Kennedy insisted that he hasn’t decided anything yet. But he claimed that the party needs a new approach, clearly insinuating that Markey represents a politics that is ripe for replacement.

“I think I’ve got new ideas and a new approach and, if I get into this race, that’s what this race will be about,” Kennedy said. He wouldn’t say what any of those new ideas are, and stated, repeatedly, that Markey is a “good man.”


In short, he said exactly what someone would say who’s running.

In a sense, running against a colleague feels out of character for Kennedy, a man who exudes politeness, even deference. But that is nearly certain to be trumped — pardon the expression — by the desire to make more of a mark in Washington than he can from his current perch.

Massachusetts voters will only benefit from a clash between two very good candidates in a high-stakes political race. While Markey has been a fine member of Congress for decades, he isn’t owed a glide path to another term. I don’t think even he would argue with that.

Kennedy gave some hints Tuesday of what his campaign might revolve around. Though he criticized Trump, he made multiple references to the forces that made Trump’s rise possible, a system in Washington that has been “broken” for years. Clearly he is among the politicians who views Trump as a manifestation of a larger malady, a point made explicitly in his Facebook post.


“Our system has been letting down a lot of people for a long time, and we can’t fix it if we don’t challenge it,” Kennedy said. “I’ve got some ideas on how to do that. And I don’t think our democratic process promises anyone a turn. What it does promise is the chance for anyone to earn it — if we think we have something to offer and are willing to put ourselves and our ideas out there.”

There’s something paradoxical about the scion of a decadeslong political dynasty presenting himself as a foe of the system, and Kennedy knows it. He lightly brushed off a comparison of his challenge, should it happen, to the Ayanna Pressley-Mike Capuano donnybrook last year. This would not be that. It’s more like young John F. Kennedy taking on incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge.

It’s interesting that the US Senate — a certifiably do-nothing body that hardly ever passes anything worth talking about these days is suddenly the place to be. Regardless of actual legislative output, membership in the Senate offers a huge megaphone. Though a gifted communicator, Kennedy has been eclipsed in the House by a newer group of progressives viewed as the party’s future. In the Senate, he would be a much bigger star.

The question that will dog his candidacy is why he would be any better a senator than Markey. The answer is: he might not be. But he has sought in recent months to carve out a niche by talking about big political questions, and making a case for what he calls “moral capitalism.” He wants to cast himself as a foe of incrementalism, of Washington-as-usual. Insurgents have won on less.


Can a Kennedy be a persuasive representative of new and different? Or does Ed Markey’s well of goodwill with voters run deeper than people assume?

Kennedy says he hasn’t made any decisions — which, I guess, is technically true. But nobody lays out their rationale for entering a race they don’t plan to enter.

Don’t expect the suspense to last for long.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at adrian.walker@globe.com. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.