The reaction online has, predictably, been harsher. Progressives have flooded Kennedy’s Twitter replies with critiques of his record, suggesting he’s trying to claim the Senate seat as a sort of inheritance and calling him “the prince of privilege.” An outcry on social media prompted a group of Broadway stars to back out of a planned fundraiser for Kennedy’s campaign.
“Literally my entire life, no matter what I’ve done, people have leveled the criticism of ‘You’re doing this because you’re a Kennedy.’ Literally everything,” Kennedy told me. “So I hear that. That is up to me to disprove.”
As for Markey, he said: “Yes, he came from more humble beginnings than I did, but he’s also been in office for 50 years. That in and of itself is a position of privilege.”
Kennedy’s rationale is both straightforward and, to many Massachusetts Democrats, pretty thin: He thinks Markey isn’t doing enough, nationally or locally, and he would do better. “The job of a senator is more than the votes you cast and the bills you file,” Kennedy uses as a refrain, meant to rebut Markey’s recitation of a solidly progressive voting record. His implication is that a senator from Massachusetts, like Warren, Kerry, and, yes, the Kennedys, needs to be a star, a national movement leader.
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Markey’s partnership with Ocasio-Cortez on the Green New Deal blunts that critique. “You have to do both, and I have done both,” Markey told me. To Kennedy loyalists, though, Markey’s role in the formation of the Green New Deal is overstated, the work of a savvy politician protecting his base ahead of an election. “He signed on to something that AOC and the Sunrise Movement created,” Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told me.
A bigger problem for Kennedy is that, over the course of four terms in Congress, he’s been no more a star in the House than Markey has been in the Senate. He hasn’t been a trailblazer in the mold of Bernie Sanders or Warren, or even as assertive as Ocasio-Cortez. He’s treaded carefully on policy—he did not initially embrace Medicare for All, for example, and he’s been a latecomer, especially given his relative youth, to the cause of marijuana legalization. Kennedy’s biggest turn in the national spotlight, his response to Trump’s address—was bestowed on him by party leaders.
When I asked Weber, of the Sunrise Movement, to respond to Kennedy’s charge that Markey, beyond his recent role in launching the Green New Deal, had been a lackluster progressive voice, he scoffed. “That’s just kabooey,” he replied, before rattling off a number of Markey crusades, including his early-1980s battle to end the nuclear arms race. But Weber also turned the question of whether Markey had been enough of a leader around on the challenger. “First of all, I would ask: Has Joe Kennedy?”