After Democrats across the country took a beating in the midterm elections, party leaders put out word that they wanted to pass the rebuilding torch to the next generation.
Quickly, Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts let it be known that he wanted no part of the role that Politico.com floated for him — chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
As Kennedy explained to me during a recent interview, he’s working hard to build relationships with Republican House members — not thinking about how to oust them from Congress.
“It’s an important job,” Kennedy said of the DCCC chairmanship. “But it’s not something that interests me. If I do the job right, I would be finding ways to beat those guys,” he added.
If he doesn’t care about beating “those guys,” his party certainly does. But since his election in 2012, Kennedy hasn’t been shy about embracing a less militant attitude towards the GOP. Given the present vitriol between Democrats and Republicans, it doesn’t take much.
“They’re people too,” he said of Tea Party Republicans, who pressured their party’s more moderate members into shutting down the government in 2013. He’s also part of a bipartisan, 6:30 a.m. exercise group that was featured last summer in the New York Times Style section.
He has differed with President Obama, too. He (along with most of the Massachusetts delegation) voted against the amendment that gave Obama authority to train and arm Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State.
He isn’t the first Kennedy to chart a path around the partisan machine.
“Sometimes party loyalty asks too much,” his great uncle, President John F. Kennedy, once said when sizing up the choice between Republican incumbent Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts and then-Governor Foster Furcolo, the Democrat who was challenging him.
As senator, JFK steered clear of the Byzantine politics of that chamber, as did his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. From 1969 to 1971, their brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, served as assistant majority leader, which briefly put him on a path up the leadership ladder. However, as Kennedy wrote in his memoir, “True Compass,” those who engineered his loss of that position “did me a favor . . . the defeat served as a prompt to immerse myself in contemplation and study.” He goes on to say, “I absorbed the Senate’s history, the careers of its greatest members, the principles that lent it constancy over the years, and the many social movements and powerful figures that at times altered its influence and character.”
Over his long Senate career, Ted Kennedy carved out an identity as the liberal lion who could still reach across the aisle on thorny issues like health care, immigration, and education reform. For the moment, Joe Kennedy is seeking less glamorous common ground.
Just reelected to a second term, he’s all excited about the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act, a bill he has been working on for 18 months with Representative Tom Reed, a Republican from New York. According to Kennedy’s office, the legislation would create “a network of regional institutes across the country, each focused on a unique technology, material or process relevant to advanced manufacturing.”
Last September, the bill passed the full House by voice vote. A companion bill in the Senate passed out of the Commerce Committee in April, and Kennedy and Reed are trying to get it to the Senate floor before the end of the year. Asked about the long slog to get a not very sexy proposal passed into law, Kennedy pointed out that his great uncle Ted spent nearly half a century pushing health care reform and, despite his best efforts, couldn’t get it done in his lifetime.
“If he could do health care for 50 years, I could do manufacturing for 18 months,” he said.
If Americans are as sick of gridlock as they tell pollsters, he is ahead of his party when it comes to reading the national zeitgeist. The two sides in Congress right now are talking past each other as they promote conflicting visions for America.
Someone who breaks the stalemate could get the country’s attention.
That sounds more like the torch this Kennedy is working to pick up.