All of us emerged from last week’s holiday fog to the news that Ben Affleck isn’t running for US Senate — but Ed Markey is. Neither fact is especially shocking. A Washington promotion sounds great for a Washington guy. Meanwhile, if you were one of People’s former “Sexiest Men Alive,” wouldn’t you rather hang out with Matt in Pacific Palisades than wrangle every day with Mitch McConnell?
Still, Affleck’s Facebook page remains a tribute to the public’s movie-star-as-politician fantasy: at last count, more than 1,600 “likes” and 250 comments, most of them pleading for Affleck to reconsider. Someone asked him to fix the TSA so she could carry bottled water through the LAX security gates. Senator Ben could do anything!
Not to fear, Congressman Markey: Most of Affleck’s biggest fans seem to be from out of state. But the flurry over Ben — and the lack of any similar outpouring, thus far, on facebook.com/EdJMarkey — raises an intriguing question. What makes people think a Hollywood star could take on Washington better than a Washington hand?
Partly, it’s star power itself: the sense that, given what happened to Martha Coakley in 2010, it will take a big name with built-in appeal to defeat the still-glowing Scott Brown. But this isn’t 2010. Brown lost his last race in a lackluster campaign that undercut his good-guy reputation. He was hobbled by the national GOP’s turn to the right, and his timidity in the face of that. A bipartisan inclination, voters seemed to understand, doesn’t do much good if you aren’t going to lead.
Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, didn’t start out a star, except to the MSNBC faithful. It took $42 million, give or take, to make her a household name. But she did have a mission: a passion for consumer-finance protection. This was appealing, to voters and to donors. It felt like leadership.
That’s what people seemed to like about Ben Affleck, too: He has managed, within the context of his day job, to cultivate a sense of purpose. His movies hit serious themes. His charity helps the Congolese. He submits op-eds and testifies before Congress. Sure, you get an automatic boost when you’re a movie star. But it’s worth remembering that Affleck didn’t always have a reputation for high-mindedness. He’s had to learn to manage his own image. He understands that people respond to a mission and appreciate someone who’s willing to leverage his prestige for a particular cause.
Markey has prestige and power, too, most of it wielded within the halls of Congress. In 35 years in the House, he has worked his way up to positions of influence, though they aren’t as influential when Democrats are in the minority. He’s been a leader on climate change and green energy. He has a long history of advocating for gun control. Hejumped quickly on the need to regulate compounding pharmacies, after contaminated drugs from a Massachusetts company allegedly caused a meningitis outbreak.
But legislative instincts and star power aren’t the same thing. And a statewide race, particularly one that’s condensed into a few months, will require Markey to be much flashier than he’s had to be within the halls of Congress. Can he step up the rhetoric? Cast himself, like Warren, as somebody who’s girding for a fight? Can he pluck a single issue from the usual Democratic causes and convince the voters that he’ll commit himself unwaveringly to it? Can he do all that, even if he has a primary foe?
It’s hard to remake yourself into a star overnight. And Markey’s strongest case for himself remains the insider argument: As a successful party foot soldier and longtime Washington hand, he could retain some of the influence that Massachusetts stands to lose, once its senior senator is a freshman senator, too.
But that’s not the sort of campaign pitch that makes the public go all googly-eyed. Massachusetts voters have proven, time and again, that they have little use for candidates who simply happen to be next in line. They don’t need an action hero. But they tend to like people of action.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.