With impeachment in the air, think for a moment of US Representative Joe Kennedy III as a canary in the coal mine of Democratic politics. For the party, there’s risk in inhaling. For individual lawmakers, there’s risk in resisting.
Kennedy is inhaling.
In May, Kennedy echoed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s argument that President Trump was baiting Congress to take up impeachment. In June, he called for an impeachment inquiry. With that, Kennedy, a close Pelosi ally, broke with her more cautious approach. Maybe it’s a signal that Pelosi is leaning toward impeachment, too. Or maybe it’s just a way to cover his left flank. Either way, his impeachment evolution signals how uncertain the times are for Democrats — even for a Kennedy in Massachusetts.
Kennedy attributes his change of heart to a close reading of the full report by special counsel Robert Mueller and consultation with legal experts. “Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that the president engaged in multiple acts of obstruction of justice. Once you arrive at that conclusion, there’s not much room for much else besides impeachment,” he said in a telephone interview. Mueller, he said, “absolutely” ducked the obvious conclusion presented in Volume II of his own report: that Trump committed a crime. But Mueller “never takes that leap” and just “lays it at the feet of Congress,” said Kennedy. He believes that Mueller’s testimony before Congress, scheduled for July 17, could change some minds; lawmakers who have read his report will be “quoting the special counsel back to the special counsel,” and that could make a difference.
Kennedy hates any suggestion that politics ever play a role in his decision-making. But given that he’s often mentioned as a potential candidate for US Senate or governor, who can resist?
For one thing, he seems to be trying to put some distance between himself and Pelosi.
On June 22, Kennedy and Pelosi attended a fund-raising event in Hyannis, where impeachment was discussed. But he insists he didn’t give Pelosi a heads-up about his decision and has not spoken to her about it since he announced it on June 28.
Other members of the Massachusetts delegation have also called for impeachment proceedings. They include Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president; Representative Jim McGovern, who chairs the House Rules Committee: Representative Seth Moulton, who led an unsuccessful effort last fall to stop Pelosi from regaining the speakership; and Representative Ayanna Pressley, who’s pressuring Pelosi from the left with other freshmen progressives.
Last November, Pressley shocked the political establishment by defeating longtime incumbent Michael Capuano. Since then, other incumbents are facing heat from the left. Senator Ed Markey has two challengers, and progressive candidates are also targeting Moulton and Representatives Stephen Lynch and Richard Neal. Kennedy, too, faces a primary challenge, from Ihssane Leckey, a former Wall Street regulator who moved to the United States from Morocco when she was 20, according to a DigBoston profile.
The notion that Kennedy could be even slightly vulnerable from the left shows just how far left his party is tilting. As Politico recently noted, Kennedy cosponsored the Medicare for All bill, is active on LGBTQ issues, and supports the Green New Deal. Still, Joe K III is no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and Leckey is connected to the same political action committee that backed AOC.
He said he welcomes the challenge and debate. “I’ve got a strong progressive record on issues of importance to the Democratic Party,” said Kennedy. “On some issues, I’m not as far left as some people would want me to be.” But, impeachment, he said, is not an issue that should be assessed that way. With it, “you’re talking about putting the country through a gut-wrenching process. It’s going to have consequences for this presidency and for American history.” It’s a moment, he said, when lawmakers must come to their own conclusion, for better or worse, and live with the choice they make.
With impeachment in the air, Kennedy took a deep breath and made a choice he said is all about principle. But he also positioned himself politically for whatever his next quest may be.