What has Joe Kennedy, freshman Democrat from Massachusetts, learned about a Congress taken hostage by Tea Party Republicans?
The answer might surprise you.
“They’re people too,” he said, when asked his opinion about Republican colleagues who are more frequently described as extortionists and blackmailers by Kennedy’s fellow Democrats, including President Obama.
Kennedy is 10 months into his first term representing the Fourth Congressional District — Barney Frank’s home base for more than three decades. He’s a novice congressman, but given family lineage, he’s not exactly a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” novice. From Kennedy’s first days in the nation’s capital, Beltway veterans who knew his famous relatives took him aside to offer their best advice.
Their overall message: Today’s adversary is tomorrow’s friend, and vice versa. How do we find a way to make it work?
Although recent weeks have been frustrating, Kennedy contends the atmosphere is not as depressing or as hopeless as it might look from the outside. “The media makes it out to be a knock-down, bare-knuckle brawl every day,” he said. “Everyone here got elected. Everyone here got someone to vote for them. Everyone is genuinely trying to do the right thing for the country.”
Even Tea Party Republicans? Kennedy said he doesn’t agree with their agenda or tactics, but understands “they are doing what their districts sent them to do.” Despite the media’s dramatic depiction of a bitter and divided Congress, Kennedy said there are ongoing, normal “conversations” — a favorite word of House Speaker John Boehner — on any number of topics: “We talk about the Red Sox, their kids, and whether they’ll have a chance to see them on the weekend. Regular old things co-workers would talk about.”
Sure the politics get difficult, said Kennedy, such as when Republicans who led the charge to cut the federal food stamp program “lecture about the importance of food stamps” as they try to press the case for piecemeal budget funding. That, Kennedy considers “a legislative ploy, a gimmick.” But he still said he understands what’s motivating them — the folks back home, who simply have a different world view than the folks back home in Massachusetts.
This may be Kennedy happy talk or pure Kennedy calculation. When he got to Congress, he said he would forge his own path. The voters in his district were going “to get me,” said Kennedy — not his late grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy; not his late great-uncles, Jack or Ted Kennedy; and not his father, the former congressman. Last July, he was the only Massachusetts congressman to vote against an amendment that would have curtailed one aspect of the government’s power to spy on American citizens. He said he did it on principle, but going against the local political grain also created a little buzz.
Seeing humanity instead of heartlessness in the Tea Party could create even more, especially in Massachusetts.
Kennedy joined the rest of the Massachusetts delegation in asking Boehner to end the budget impasse by bringing a clean, amendment-free resolution before the House and to act to raise the debt limit by the Oct. 17 deadline.
But his Bay State colleagues have been sounding a more militant tone, at least via press release.
Americans deserve better than the “reckless and divisive politics” championed by House Republicans, declared Representative John Tierney. Representative Michael Capuano criticized “the obsession many Republicans have with sabotaging” Obamacare. Representative Niki Tsongas called the budget impasse “a failure of leadership unlike anything we have seen in recent memory.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren has led the Bay State charge against Republicans with fiery speeches that go viral. She stirs the liberal masses by declaring “We are not a country of anarchists” and refers to the “bizarre vision” of “extremist Republicans.” Senator Ed Markey suggested Tea Party Republicans watched the “Breaking Bad” finale’s “dramatic depiction of reckless behavior” and decided to one-up it.
Kennedy describes the Tea Party as “a minority group that has decided they want to be the wrench in the machine to grind it to a halt rather than do the hard work to make it function. For those who want a smaller government, it’s a lot easier to tear it down.”
His bottom line: “You just hope you’re able to build enough of a coalition to move the country forward in a more productive way.”
It’s less passionate and more pragmatic than much of the rhetoric out of Washington, and maybe Washington needs more of it.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.