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The Berniefication of Ed Markey

How the young left fell in love with an old school liberal.

Before 2019, few people could have predicted that Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey would be a likely candidate to win the trust and respect of young progressives on the left wing of the Democratic Party, let alone the socialists who deeply distrust anyone in the party outside of Bernie Sanders. At the time, Markey arguably wasn’t even the most likely senator from Massachusetts to win that kind of support.

But this has been a weird year all around, one that, politically—aside from the pandemic and its catastrophic public health and economic consequences—has been full of both soul-crushing disappointments and important but ultimately small victories that point to some hope for the future of the electoral left. And now Markey, whose political career spans five decades, has become much of the left’s new favorite Old Man, at least temporarily.

For Markey, it couldn’t come at a better time. The 74-year-old is fighting to keep his career alive for what could very well be his second and final six-year term in the Senate. And even though he’s been in Congress for 44 years, Markey now finds himself a David up against the Goliath of Massachusetts (and American) political dynasties: the Kennedy family and its new great hope, the moist-mouthed Joe Kennedy III.

Around this time last year, Markey could be forgiven for deciding to retire rather than risk his legacy on a final run for Senate against a Kennedy. Kennedy led by double-digits in early polling, and in his first quarter after announcing his run for Senate last September, the 39-year old Kennedy raised nearly two and a half million dollars.

But Markey has refused to back down from the challenge, and has slowly chipped away at the perception that his September 1 primary with Kennedy was a foregone conclusion. Markey has led the most recent polling by wildly varying margins, and earlier this month, he released what might be the best ad of the 2020 cycle, one which made ingenious use of one of the most famous quotes in American history to politely tell the Kennedys to go fuck themselves.

But solid polling and creative ads don’t fully explain why Markey has become so popular on the left in recent months. Essentially, a perfect storm has created a wave of enthusiastic support in his direction that makes him a real contender to win what was once thought to be an uphill battle for re-election—and because Markey re-embraced the rebelliousness and unapologetic liberalism of his early years in office, no one has been more responsible for putting him in a position to win than the man himself.

I don’t want to rehash Markey’s biography, which has been a feature of his campaign, but that biography is a big reason why he’s become so popular in recent months, so…let’s rehash it a little bit.

Markey first got elected to Congress in 1976 by running against cronyism and political corruption, which in the years between Nixon and Reagan had quite a bit of political purchase. As Matt Stoller wrote for The Atlantic in 2016, the “Watergate babies” of the class immediately preceding Markey’s “were antiwar, not necessarily anti-bank,” and marked the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party as an economic populist party.

Markey was 29 when he first got to D.C., but his brand of old-school labor politics was quickly going out of style. Markey was one of the few Democrats elected in the mid-1970s onward who did not vocally want to reorient the Democratic Party back towards the center, and, in that way, he’s not wholly unlike a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.

The comparisons don’t line up perfectly; Markey is not a socialist and has never claimed to be, unlike Corbyn and Sanders—who was truly on the fringe of American politics when he was elected mayor of Burlington during the early years of the Reagan administration. (It’s also worth mentioning here that during the early part of Markey’s career, he leaned in a socially conservative direction on issues such as desegregation busing and school prayer, but by the mid-1980s had disavowed his more conservative positions. “I just evolved,” he told the Boston Globe in 2013.)

But Sanders and Corbyn were both longtime survivors of the Third Way whose politics came roaring back into vogue in the post-Great Recession, post-Occupy world five years ago—and who developed a fervent following from young people. (As Sarah Leonard wrote for the New York Times of the reaction to Labour’s manifesto in 2017, which the Daily Mail smirked would “drag [Britain] back to the 1970s”: “To some readers it may have sounded like a threat, but to many young people it was a promise.” The point being: Young people actually had a future in the 1970s.) Now, it seems, Markey has joined them.

Markey shares other traits with Corbyn and Sanders. In 1980, he won a primetime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention to talk about energy for ten minutes, after anti-nuclear power activists threatened to force him on the ballot as a vice presidential candidate, according to a Boston Globe profile during his first Senate run.

Apart from his ideological differences, Markey eventually shifted away from the rebellious nature of his first decade in public office and towards a more conciliatory approach to the establishment. Whereas House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she considered Markey a “disrupter” when she first got to Congress, by the time he ran for the Senate in 2013, she told the Globe that Markey “knows how to get the job done.”

Although Markey was able to cut deals with Democrats and Republicans to further his agenda on energy issues and otherwise, he continued to slog through term after term in the House, grinding away on legislation and building relationships while still being kept at arm’s length from real power, such as a House committee chairmanship. Faced with the choice of being a lone, angry voice or playing ball with the establishment in the hopes of making incremental change, Markey chose the latter—and he still didn’t get anywhere.

But in the past several years, lefty politics have emerged from their long stay in America’s basement for several decades, and while no one would claim socialists or even liberal Democrats are anywhere close to power, left-wing Democrats at least have the potential to be a factor in the next Congress and beyond.

When Markey began his political career, Bernie Sanders was beginning a decade of perennial runs on obscured third-party tickets; now he’s the runner-up in two consecutive Democratic primaries and one of America’s few truly well-liked politicians. Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—Markey’s Green New Deal partner—has gone from heavy primary underdog to one of the most recognizable Democrats in America in just over two years.

In another era, Markey might be tempted to run from the more progressive parts of his resume, and Kennedy would be proudly touting the fact that he willingly worked for one of Massachusetts’ most conservative district attorneys, instead of downplaying it. Luckily for Markey, this is not that era.

The second reason for Markey’s popularity on the left is that he actually has a history of trying to appeal to young and left-wing voters. When John Kerry was named Secretary of State in 2013, Markey jumped into the race to replace him in the Senate. His opponent was Rep. Stephen Lynch, an anti-abortion Democrat representing eastern Massachusetts who, coincidentally, is currently facing his own primary challenge this year.

In that 2013 race, Markey specifically courted the support of young progressives. He didn’t run a proto-Sanders campaign, but he touted his work on the 1996 Telecommunications Act and his support for net neutrality, was hammering the point that healthcare should be considered a right at the same time some Democrats were still running from Obamacare, and stressed his environmentalist bonafides.

It helped that Lynch is legitimately a conservative, and so for liberal and progressive Democrats in one of America’s bluest states, keeping him out was a unifying factor. For young progressives in Massachusetts, that Markey-Lynch race might have been their first big campaign and taste of victory. Now they’re being asked to abandon Markey, who in the time since has allied himself with Ocasio-Cortez to craft the Green New Deal—which at this point reads more like a domestic policy agenda for the left than a bill—for Joe Kennedy, a substantially younger man whose own progressive record is just as questionable as Markey’s has ever been.

And then as now, young progressives and leftists were willing to forgive Markey for his more hawkish positions, and for the votes he took on the 1994 crime bill, the Iraq War, and so on. “Has every vote he’s ever taken over his long political career been perfect? No,” Sunrise Movement co-founder Evan Weber told The Intercept last month. “But he’s often the person in his party forcing others to take hard or uncomfortable votes before positions become politically popular, creating the space and momentum for change.”

Finally, Joe Kennedy III is perhaps the perfect foil for Markey: the young scion of a political dynasty who can’t really explain why he’s running against a guy he previously endorsed. On the campaign trail and in debates, for example, Kennedy has often used some variation of the line that being a senator is more “than the way you vote and the bills that you file.” At best, Kennedy means that someone with the position should do more grandstanding; at worst, he’s implying it’s little more than a launching pad for the presidency.

And so, unable to coherently convey why the state needs him now, Kennedy more often than not appears to think that the seat is his birthright like some 19th century European noble. This charge might be more unfair if Kennedy didn’t constantly lean on his family name, from his merch choices to practically begging his way into a fight with Markey over his family. Recurring left agitator Pelosi didn’t help much, telling the Washington Post that she endorsed Kennedy—without his asking—because “I wasn’t too happy with some of the assault that I saw made on the Kennedy family.”

Massachusetts is not the most important Senate primary remaining on the calendar, because unlike Delaware—a fight between an actual democratic socialist and a conservative Democrat who never misses an opportunity take a potshot at the left, in a state small enough that you can basically consider the race a glorified House primary—Markey and Kennedy are ultimately not that different. Markey will not save the left, and a Kennedy defeat would not spell permanent defeat for it; his progression on weed, for example, shows he’s susceptible to left pressure so long as he thinks it’s electorally advantageous.

But fairly or not, the Markey-Kennedy race has become symbolic in the fight for the future of the Democratic Party and its potential for a progressive takeover. Now that we’re at that stage, little else matters except winning. And it’s a testament to Markey’s political skill that he and his campaign have done all of the right things to put him in a position to do something a few years ago seemed to be unthinkable: beating a Kennedy in a statewide race in Massachusetts.

Screenshot: NBC10 Boston/YouTube