This is a hard essay to write. The point I want to make is subtle, maybe too subtle. It will be read as age-ist. It isn’t. That risk of misunderstanding would be enough for most to make uttering these words make little sense. I’ve not yet learned to be that careful. So here goes: the point I am making here is an important point for Democrats to consider in particular. Because the problem that I’m describing here extends far beyond this one race.
Ed Markey is an extraordinary public servant. I don’t know of a vote he's made in four decades in Washington that I’d disagree with (except his support for the Iraq War (for which he’s apologized) and his refusal to stop President Obama’s more hawkish flexing). He’s been a leader on technology issues. He gets technology. He’s one of many Democratic politicians who I am proud to point to as an image and representative of our party.
But public office is not a reward for good behavior. It is not a position you are entitled to, because you’ve done well in the past. Public office is a mechanism for inspiring people to politics and public service. It is a way of bringing people into a democracy and driving them to build a better democracy and a better government.
This is a view that I fear my party doesn’t quite get. There are many Democrats to admire. But too many treat admiration as a reason never to go home. The average age of Democratic leaders in Congress is 72 (two years younger than Ed Markey is today.) For Republicans, it’s just 48.
Those numbers are troubling not because age is a problem. I would have happily supported Bernie over Mayor Pete. I am eager to support Joe Biden. Instead, they’re troubling because they’re proxies for time served in Congress. The modern view that you go to Washington and stay there seems particularly Democratic. In the House, the average tenure for Democrats is almost 25% higher than Republicans. In the Senate, it’s 10% higher. No doubt, that difference is for the best possible reasons — Democrats believe in government; their representatives go to Washington to serve; the more they serve, the better they become. Republicans, by contrast, seem to get bored more quickly. They come to Washington to cut back government; when government doesn’t retreat, they tend to go home (or to K Street). (Or so the great Larry Sabato surmises.)
But the consequences of long — and in Markey’s case, four decades-long, service—are not insignificant for the party as a whole. No doubt, our party has the best possible young representatives. But the leadership of our party is far removed from the life experience of the most vital demographic for our party. Our key challenge is to give those under 35 a reason to vote in the same proportion as those over 65. And we do that in part when the party makes room for new generations and when it encourages those generations by giving them space — and place—to grow.
I’m not sure I would see this like this if I didn’t believe Joe Kennedy has the potential to become one of our party’s — and Nation’s — greatest. He’s been my representative. I’ve not agreed with everything he’s done. But I’ve been inspired by the important things he’s pressed for. He speaks for a generation when he criticizes those who depend on special interest funding for their campaigns. To those on the outside, that system feels wrong. To those in it for 40 years, it just seems like the system. Kennedy has the chance — and the voice—to inspire many to politics who now just turn away. He, more clearly than Ed Markey, has the potential to grow participation in our politics among the people we need to inspire most.
This is why I think that it is Joe Kennedy that should be our candidate in November, not Ed Markey. Not because Kennedy is better than Markey. How could someone 10 years into his career be better than someone 40 years into his career? But rather, it should be Joe, not Ed, because Markey has done his time. He should be proud of what he’s done. We should all honor him for his service. But democracy in general, and the Democratic Party in particular, needs to encourage a flow of the new mixed with the less new. We need a party that speaks to the generation we most need to rally. We need more like Kennedy.
And more generally: we need more in our party to recognize that there comes a time when everyone should go home. Not because they’ve failed. But because they’ve succeeded — by serving, for a limited time, and well. The Framers called this “rotation,” and they believed it would assure a Congress closer to the people. For much of the 19th century, the average term in the house was 3 years.
Three years is too short. Forty years is too long. I have enormous respect for the service Ed Markey has given Massachusetts across those 40 years. I have even greater hope for the inspiration that Joe Kennedy could give over the next 6.
Lots of responses in the smsphere. Thanks for that. Here’s some emphasis to be sure the point is clear:
- Lots are stuck on the policy comparison point: compare where each is on a scale, the one closer to you is the person you should support. The whole point of this essay is to say that that’s an incomplete way to think about the problem of representation. Not that policy positions don’t matter — obviously, they’re critical. But if you think the difference between Kennedy and Markey is going to matter that much in the Senate, then we have a different view about how the Senate “works.” When policy is close enough, then rotation becomes relevant. In this case, primary.
- Some are inspired to call Kennedy a “centrist suck.” I just don’t understand what that could mean. Kennedy’s got a .2 rating on the govtrack ideology rating, with Jackie Speier and Adam Schiff. John Lewis had a .18, Katie Porter a .24. Sure, AOC has a .09, and Markey, .10, but these are not disqualifying differences.
- Lots are animated against the Kennedy name. I think that’s a sign of health in our democracy, and I’m all for it. My priors — before I met him and got to know him — would have been to be against him for that reason too. But the person he actually is pushed aside the image I had about who he must be. Anyway, for the demographic I care about, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “the Kennedy name.”
- And finally (for now), lots say older candidates often inspire younger candidates. That’s true — which is why I said I’d support Bernie or Biden (or Warren) over Mayor Pete. But my point —again—is not about age, it is about time-spent-in-DC. Rotation is better for the party and the nation. Three years is too short. Forty years is too long.