ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
The political currents raging within the Democratic Party hit the shores of the Bay State this week as a member of the party’s establishment, House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, survived a primary challenge, but that vaunted Kennedy political dynasty was beat. Peter Canellos smartly summed up the moment in Politico magazine. He wrote, quote, “For most of the 60-year history of the Kennedy dynasty, it’s been easier to imagine its last act as coming in a burst of triumph, a spasm of violence or a dream-shall-never-die promise of enduring hope. On Tuesday, however, what might be the final note of this political symphony was written not in glory or tragedy, but in numbers, the sad prose of politics: Senator Ed Markey 55.6 percent, U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III 44.4 percent. In a Democratic primary. In Massachusetts.” Here is what Kennedy, age 39, who was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had to say.
REPRESENTATIVE JOSEPH KENNEDY III (D-MA): (From video.) To my family, the Kennedy family, whose name was invoked far more often than I anticipated in this race, you all are my heroes. You are my role models. You are my example of what public service should be and can be when it is done with courage and grit.
MR. COSTA: And here is Senator Markey, age 74, who rode endorsements from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive favorites to victory.
SENATOR EDWARD MARKEY (D-MA): (From video.) Tonight is more than just a celebration of a movement, it is a reaffirmation of the need to have a movement – a progressive movement of young people demanding radical change. Tonight’s victory is a tribute to those young people and to their vision. They will save us if we trust them.
MR. COSTA: Joining me are three great political reporters: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Nikole Killion, correspondent for CBS News; and Arlette Saenz, political correspondent for CNN.
Nikole, you’ve sat down with Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez in recent months. What did this Massachusetts race tell us about their power inside the Democratic Party and the way they lifted Senator Markey?
NIKOLE KILLION: Well, I think there are quite a few parallels from the standpoint of I remember when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary and it really gave Bernie Sanders a shot in the arm. I mean, we all know Bernie Sanders has a lot of energy, but it really infused his campaign at a critical moment, and I think similarly when we saw AOC back Ed Markey it had a similar effect in that, you know, Markey at one point had been trailing and, you know, come election night he trounced Kennedy by double digits. So I think that goes to show the power that she has. Certainly, they authored the Green New Deal together, and so that also played a role, I think, in really motivating progressives to turn out the vote. But clearly, it shows what a powerhouse AOC has come – has become when it comes to the progressive movement, and certainly we have seen her endorse a slate of candidates this cycle as well and be very engaged in the political cycle. So I think it remains to be seen, too, what kind of influence she carries as we progress in the 2020 campaign.
MR. COSTA: Arlette, there are so many fascinating threads in this Democratic primary in Massachusetts. You’ve been covering the Biden campaign for years now and you’ve seen that moderate Joe Biden ascend in the Democratic Party in 2020, yet in Massachusetts it’s the favorite of the left who wins the primary. How are these different currents happening at the same time inside the same party?
ARLETTE SAENZ: Well, I think what this primary is showing us is that it’s going to be difficult for incumbent, moderate, establishment Congress members to stave off these challenges from progressive opponents. You saw, while Senator Markey is the incumbent, he was pushing the more progressive of the agendas in this race, but you’ve seen other lawmakers who have lost their seats during their Democratic primaries, one of those being William Lacy Clay over in Missouri because he faced that progressive challenger. William Lacy Clay was also someone whose family has held onto that congressional seat in Missouri for decades. So you’ve seen this current within the Democratic Party where progressive voices are quickly and strongly gaining more force, and you know, during the Democratic primary Joe Biden, as you mentioned, he is the – was the moderate, establishment candidate, but he has at times been pushed a little bit more to the left. He’s not embracing Medicare for All, but since he has become the nominee, you know, his team worked with Bernie Sanders’ team to try to put together these policy platforms and ideas. They inched him a little bit more to the left, maybe not as far as they had wanted, but you’re seeing these two currents within the Democratic Party running parallel to each other right now with the progressives gaining a little bit more influence as they go.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you’ve been a student as a reporter of political dynasties. You’ve written a book about George W. Bush’s presidency, have a new book coming out about Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker. When you think about the Kennedy dynasty and this race in Massachusetts this week, what do you see historically and politically?
PETER BAKER: Well, it’s a remarkable moment, right? Kennedys do not lose in Massachusetts; that’s the rule. This family has been such a central part of the political scene in that state for decades, for generations. Joe Kennedy is a smart and capable young politician, seen therefore as the next generation of a family that had been so wildly successful there. For him to lose is a moment – is a moment when it says that maybe the dynasty is no longer, you know, invulnerable, even in its home state; that you have to do more than simply shown up with Kennedy on – the name on the ballot, you have to be able to make a case. And I think that Joe Kennedy, as capable as he is, didn’t make the case in Massachusetts to Massachusetts Democrats that there was something wrong with Ed Markey. He didn’t make the case that there was a reason – a raison d’etre – to get rid of a successful incumbent – an incumbent who is seen successful, anyway, by, you know, liberal Democrats in Massachusetts. And other than the generational argument, meaning it’s time for somebody new to step forward, he didn’t have an ideological argument, he didn’t have any kind of a malfeasance argument or incompetence argument, he didn’t have any case to make against Markey other than, hey, it’s time to move on to the next generation and my name is Kennedy. Now, he found, obviously, that that wasn’t going to be enough. My guess is it’s not the end for him. He’s a – he’s still, I think, seen by a lot of Democrats as a potential rising star. But it’s a real lesson, of course, that some of the old, you know, things that Democrats like the Kennedy clan relied on are no longer enough in today’s Democratic Party.
MR. COSTA: What does this mean, Nikole, if Vice President Biden wins the White House? Is this left wing of the Democratic Party going to be powerful as a force in Washington and try to pressure perhaps President Biden, if that happens, on issues like Medicare for All?
MS. KILLION: Well, I think this is certainly a precursor, potentially, to that. I can say from talking to different progressives one thing that they have made clear is that the future of the party looks more like the squad – looks more like AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar – and that the party needs to recognize that, and certainly we’ve seen some of that push and pull throughout the presidential primary as well. So if Democrats, for instance, are successful in winning back the Senate and keeping the House, I certainly think that is a trend line to watch.
MR. COSTA: Inside the Biden campaign, Arlette, was there any discussion about this race, or were they pretty hands off? Then Senator Biden, before he was vice president, served with Teddy Kennedy in the Senate. In every Biden biography, he’s clearly a fan of the Kennedy family going back to JFK and RFK. What did they make inside the campaign of what happened this week?
MS. SAENZ: Yeah, you know, we didn’t see Biden ever really talk about this race, and kind of looking at some of the other primary – Democratic primary races that have played out across the country he’s not wading into those either. You know, maybe part of it is the fact he’s a man of the Senate, spent many years there, and it’s not often where some senators will go against their fellow senators in endorsements. That’s not a way of the past, but that is something that you have seen more frequently as you have sitting members of Congress endorse a specific – other members of Congress, this is a prime example with Nancy Pelosi endorsing Joe Kennedy, AOC with Ed Markey. But for Biden himself, he kind of stayed out of these Democratic primary races to not get involved with picking sides.
MR. COSTA: One final note on Massachusetts. I was talking to one of my top sources up there and I said, what really happened, in your view? And they said, at the end of the day Joe Kennedy decided he’d rather run against Ed Markey than run for an open Senate seat against Ayanna Pressley, the representative up there, in a future race for Senate, or run against the popular Republican Governor Charlie Baker.
But moving to the Republican side for a moment, leaders in that party are grappling with their own primary issues and challenges, the rise of conspiracy theorists and fringe extremist candidates. In Georgia, Republican voters have nominated Marjorie Taylor Greene for a House seat. Greene has promoted QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory who – followers have committed violent acts and the FBI considers that movement a domestic terror threat. I asked Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise last week about how he believes the GOP should handle this conspiracy theory.
MR. COSTA: (From video.) Representative, where do you stand on this QAnon issue? If a candidate has espoused any sort of support for it, what do you believe the party should do?
HOUSE MINORITY WHIP STEVE SCALISE (R-LA): (From video.) Well, you know, this is one of those issues where I had never really heard of it before the last few weeks, really, when some people in the media started asking about it, so I went and looked it up. And look, I don’t engage in these conspiracy theories.
MR. COSTA: While Scalise said earlier this summer that offensive comments made by Greene about Muslims and Black Americans were, quote, “disgusting,” the president has congratulated Greene on winning and said that QAnon supporters, well, like him.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate. I’ve heard these are people that love our country.
MR. COSTA: Peter, you’ve written a lot about this in recent weeks, about the president and conspiracy theories. It’s not going away, is it?
MR. BAKER: No, he seems to be diving even deeper into them in the last few weeks and months. Of course, this is a president who spent years trying to peddle the conspiracy theory, or the lie, that Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country. So he’s got – he goes a long way back with, you know, dabbling in fringe elements of the political spectrum. But in the last few weeks you’ve seen a lot of it. Not only embracing a QAnon candidate and embracing QAnon ideas, QAnon tweets that he’s reposted. He tweeted just last weekend – he retweeted posts suggesting that the coronavirus death toll was actually vastly overstated, that it was only 6 percent of what we all think it is.
And he retweeted an OAN broadcast suggesting that the street protests weren’t actually anarchy, but in fact the coordinated effort to launch a coup d’état against himself, the president of the United States. So he dabbles in these sort of fringe wild theories out there, then when asked about them kind of, you know, brushes them off a little bit, as if there’s nothing to see there. It’s really quite something in a president of the United States to see that playing out – again, I think, even more so, it feels like, in these last few weeks.
MR. COSTA: What’s the consequence for voters and for the election, Nikole, when you think about this disinformation and conspiracy theory that’s out there, QAnon, which alleges that there’s some kind of, in a crazy way, a cabal of people – I don’t even want to get into the details. It’s terrible, but it’s a conspiracy theory. You couple that with what’s happening on foreign interference that’s been documented by U.S. national security officials. Where does this leave the election and the trust people have in institutions?
MS. KILLION: Well, I think at the end of the day it’s just critical that voters do their homework. I think most voters certainly make a concerted effort to do that. But even if you look at the whole situation with mail-in voting and the confusion that that has caused – you know, that’s why we continue to hear this resounding message from voting rights advocates to make sure that voters have a plan, make sure they know how to get their ballots to the poll. And then, you know, even this week with the president sowing a bit of confusion saying, well, you know, you can mail it in and then go again in person.
So it really is incumbent upon voters to educate themselves on the candidates, to educate themselves on the process of how to get their ballot to the polls, rather than buying into what they may be hearing. Obviously, sometimes it hard to filter that information, given the potential for these disinformation campaigns. But the bottom line is that it’s essential for voters to do their homework.
MR. COSTA: And finally, Arlette, you heard Representative Scalise kind of shrug off the question, said he doesn’t take it seriously. But how does the Biden campaign see this? They may not want to talk about it. I would understand that. But it’s out there. Candidates in the Republican Party and primaries are talking about this conspiracy theory. It’s not going away. So what does the Biden campaign do?
MS. SAENZ: Yeah. And Biden actually was asked about QAnon today in that press conference. I think it was the first time that he might have been asked about it. And he said that he takes mental health seriously, and that these people who believe in these QAnon theories should take advantage of the Affordable Care Act while they have it. He was trying to, you know, he made light of it a little bit, but also realizes that these are very serious beliefs that some people in this country do buy into.
And you also heard him talk about mail-in voting, and he did say that he is concerned that his own supporters could potentially be swayed by some of the things that the president has said, raising questions about mail-in voting and the validity of it. And that he – Biden himself said that he tries to not talk about that too much because he doesn’t want to give credence to it and affect his voters, who may be concerned that when they send their ballots in they may not be counted.
MR. COSTA: And, Arlette, real quickly, are we going to see Biden in front of reporters again soon? It was pretty interesting to see him take so many questions on Friday.
MS. SAENZ: Yeah, I mean, I sure hope so. You know, this week he took questions two times from national reporters. He actually did local interviews four of the days. So he has ramped up his media strategy just a bit. Hopefully, that is something that will continue as we get closer to the November election because for this past summer he’s only done basically one press conference a month, which I don’t think is enough.
MR. COSTA: We always want to hear more from people in power, hear them answering tough questions from reporters like Arlette, Nikole, and Peter. We’ll leave it there for tonight. Really appreciate you all sticking around for the extra conversation.
And thank you all for joining us. You can listen to this wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our website. While you’re there, I’d urge you to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter. It comes out every Friday. You can sign up on our website. We give you an inside look into all the things that are going on on the campaign as we get closer and closer to election day. You’ll get some updates on Washington Week panelists, including Kristen Welker from NBC and Susan Page from USA Today, who were just selected this week as moderators for the debates coming up in September and October. Susan Page will do the VP debate and Kristen Welker will do a presidential debate. But congratulations to both of them, two good friends of me and of Washington Week. But we’ll leave it there for now.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.