ANY BABY BOOMER would love to have Joseph Kennedy III as a son.
He’s smart, thoughtful, earnest, self-deprecating, and compassionate — and seems like a great family man. But is he the Democrat who can win the future?
Or do these times call for someone tougher, bolder, and edgier?
Maybe someone like Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts congressman and Iraq war veteran whose tweet after President Trump’s “prayers and condolences” tweet exploded on social media: “I agree with every word @realDonaldTrump said here. I invite him to get off his ass and join me in trying to do something about it.” Kennedy also tweeted outrage about the high school shooting, but with less visceral language.
Understood — Massachusetts has an inflated sense of importance as a launching ground for presidents. But the style differences between Kennedy, of Brookline, and Moulton, of Salem, are a microcosm of the larger challenge facing Democrats who want to win back Congress and the White House.
Will voters heed a voice of cool reason or one of raw, manipulative emotion? What’s the right balance between youth and experience? Can oldsters like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders bully through the system for one last hurrah? Can a female candidate like Elizabeth Warren succeed where Hillary Clinton failed? No one knows the answer.
But the depressing deadlock over issues like immigration and gun rights make it feel like it’s over for boomers and the same old voices echoing the same old empty words. Whose voice will resonate with that broad swath of potential voters, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, that, according to research by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard, now represent the largest generation in the electorate?
They won’t care about Nancy Pelosi’s preference. Kennedy’s bond with the House minority leader won him a coveted shot at delivering the rebuttal to Trump’s State of the Union speech. Sounding traditional Democrat themes, the 37-year-old congressman spoke to Americans “who feel forgotten and forsaken.” He called out an economy that benefits the rich “but fails to give workers their fair share of the reward.” He spoke eloquently about “the fault lines of a fractured country” and forcefully made a case for fighting for everyone’s rights, rather than pitting individuals against each other. Addressing “the Dreamers,” he also spoke a few lines in Spanish.
His speech generated headlines about his prospects as a potential presidential candidate. But it will take more than a suggestion by Politico to turn him into “the Democrats’ best hope.”
Kennedy understands the power of the youth vote. In a video clip posted on Cheddar.com, a news network broadcast from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, he said millennial voters will decide the midterm elections, whether they stay home or vote: “Regardless of whatever your political leanings are, you got to make your voice heard,” he urged them.
There it is. The voice of reason. Kennedy still exercises with a bipartisan group that includes Moulton, he told me during a recent telephone interview, and ticked off some legislation he’s working on with Republicans. Back in 2014, he let it be known he wanted no part of a role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, because he wanted to build relationships with Republican House members. “If I do the job right, I would be finding ways to beat those guys,” he said then. Is he still reluctant to “beat those guys?”
To be honest, he sounds a little ambivalent.
“Would I want the House back? Yes,” said Kennedy. But, then he added: “Is there a way to do that, without targeting individual (Republican) members I have relations with? I’ve tried to be respectful of that.” He explained his approach like this: “There’s a difference between them (Republicans) raising money for a campaign committee and coming into Newton, Mass., to campaign against me.” But, he conceded, “Unfortunately, some Republicans have to lose. There’s a way to do it that doesn’t poison your ability to work with Republican colleagues.”
To Kennedy, that may be reasonable middle ground. Yet in the end, there’s really only one way for Democrats to gain more ground in Washington — and that’s by beating Republicans, poison or no poison.