For now, anyway. The man tapped by Democrats to respond to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address insists that he has no aspirations to represent his party on the ticket for 2020. Instead, Joe Kennedy III wants a “big, messy primary” in which all of the aspirants compete for the prize — and in which the winner is the candidate who best resonates with the broader American electorate:
“I am not perturbed at all about the prospect of a big, messy primary for Democrats,” Kennedy said. That includes Biden, who would be 78 at the time of the next presidential inauguration—“I’m not going to vote for or against somebody because they’re old or young,” Kennedy said. And it includes Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who taught Kennedy at Harvard Law: “I think she would be a great president.”
What about Kennedy himself? He’s a 37-year-old congressman at a time when the best-known figures in the party have wrinkles and gray hair; he’s started to make a name for himself as a leading liberal voice on health care and other issues; he chairs Congress’ Transgender Equality Task Force; he speaks fluent Spanish from his service with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic; he met his wife in Warren’s class at Harvard Law. He has the most revered family name in all of Democratic politics.
But don’t look to him to be the messenger he says Democrats need.
“I don’t see that happening. I just don’t,” he said. “I realize that some folks might not believe me in this—I didn’t run for Congress on the hopes that one day you’re going to run for something else.”
Hey, this is totally believable, right? After all, when have we ever heard of a Kennedy using a Congressional seat as a launching pad for presidential ambitions? Come on, man. If Kennedy had no other aspirations beyond his own Congressional district, he’d never had needed to agree to do the thankless task of the SOTU response. Kennedy got stung by the SOTU response curse for that service, with viewers left wondering whether the latest Kennedy dynast was foaming at the mouth. (He explained later that he applied too much lip balm for his big moment.)
He does make one good point that Democrats have apparently forgotten in their response to Trump, both in the SOTU and in general. In order to win back voters, they have to actually listen to them and treat their concerns as valid. At the moment, Kennedy’s party has gone all-in on ridiculing unscheduled four-figure bonuses and wage hikes from the tax reform bill as “crumbs,” sneering at their value in planning for family expansion and education, rather than offer an alternative which prioritizes those issues. Had Democrats nominated Joe Biden rather than Hillary Clinton, they might have beaten Trump to some of those voters, Kennedy argues:
“I was a very strong supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s. I think she would have been a great president,” Kennedy said during an interview with Politico’s “Off Message” podcast.
“I do believe, however, that … if it were a race in the last six weeks of the election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, I think Joe Biden probably would have been successful.”
Republicans scoff at that, but it’s most likely true — because Joe Biden would have known to campaign heavily in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, for one thing. Biden has his own quirks and gaffes, but he’s also one of the last Democrats on the national stage who understood how to bridge the gap between the radical progressives and the middle-America working class. Whether yet another trust-fund-entitled Kennedy ensconced in the Harvard clique can do that effectively is still unknown, but nothing in the SOTU response suggests that he can.
Kennedy’s correct in another way that cuts against his own interests. Biden’s been in Washington long enough to be mistaken for a statue if he stands still for more than a few moments, but Biden wasn’t a dynast, such as Hillary attempted to be and Kennedy most certainly is. Voters aren’t interested in Camelots any longer; if they were, Hillary would have won in a landslide rather than lose most of the states between the two coasts. Even Biden would have struggled against that populist fervor, but he would have fared better than Hillary did.
Whether or not Kennedy is cheering it on, and whether or not he jumps into it, Democrats are all but certain to have a “big, messy primary” starting next year. Given how much primaries (and especially caucuses) get driven by activists in both parties, don’t count on the process producing a nominee who will resonate with voters outside of Democrats’ coastal and urban power centers. At best, they might get someone who at least knows to campaign outside of them.