Joan Vennochi

Quiet in the Senate

State’s delegation loses its passion as Kerry and Brown put their agendas first

John F. Kerry and Scott Brown in Faneuil Hall in February. John F. Kerry and Scott Brown in Faneuil Hall in February. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 31, 2011

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SCOTT BROWN is no Ted Kennedy. Then again, neither is John Kerry.

Now that Kennedy’s voice no longer booms from the Senate floor, Massachusetts voters hear more nuance and less passion from both sides of the aisle.

Brown, the Republican who succeeded Kennedy, promised to be the loud and fearless voice of the people. Now that he’s in office, and trying to stay there, his lips are moving, but it’s hard to hear what he’s saying. Brown’s message is mixed, if not muddled, because he also has national Republicans whispering in his ear. If he cuts them off ideologically, they’ll cut him off financially.

He isn’t alone when it comes to careful positioning. After years of toiling in Kennedy’s broad shadow, John Kerry is now the Bay State’s senior senator and top Democrat. But nearly two years after Kennedy’s death, Kerry isn’t boldly carrying Camelot’s torch around Washington. Because he’s running for secretary of state, Kerry often looks like he’s trying to please the White House more than anyone else. Described in a recent New York Times magazine profile as “a kind of ex-officio member of Obama’s national security team,’’ Kerry is careful to embrace administration policy.

Their political motivation is different, but for Massachusetts, the result is the same. From national defense to deficit reduction, neither senator cuts through the partisan carping in Washington to seize the moment and, win or lose, shape the debate the way Kennedy did.

Imagine Kennedy’s voice taking on Republicans who want to cut spending for the poor, or taking on Obama, for that matter. Today’s Bay State voices are much quieter.

On the hottest political issue of the summer - raising the debt ceiling - Brown has had little to say. Backing into a vote is becoming a pattern. From funding for Planned Parenthood to a new START treaty (a Kerry initiative), Brown’s position was hard to pin down. Then, he was unenthusiastic about explaining it.

While uninspiring, Brown’s strategy makes political sense. A freshman senator with more celebrity than clout, he’s walking a delicate line to reelection. So, he’s looking for the safe ground between a national party that tips to the right and Massachusetts independents who tilt the other way, especially on social issues.

Using that calculation, he voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. But Brown also refused to join the rest of the Bay State delegation in a video that promotes an anti-bullying message on behalf of gay and transgender rights advocates. A Brown spokesman said it was because the leader of the video campaign previously made crude comments about Brown.

Kerry is making another kind of calculation. He will never have to worry that too much liberalism will upset his base. But instead of channeling his inner Kennedy, Kerry is more focused on finding the same political center as the White House.

Last week, he gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor calling for for resolution of the debt ceiling crisis. In it, he invoked Republican Ronald Reagan. In choosing the Gipper as his political hero, Kerry was echoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other adminstration officials.

Maybe that is what compromise looks like. But in Kerry’s case, it also looks like eagerness to please the White House, an eagerness that is particularly evident when it comes to foreign policy.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry gave Obama important cover on the Afghanistan surge. Now, his current Afghanistan position is difficult to discern. Kerry also tried to give Obama a shield on Libya. His committee recently approved a resolution Kerry co-sponsored with Republican Senator John McCain that would have authorized US participation in the NATO mission for up to one year. But the full Senate put off acting on it.

This isn’t just about votes. Kerry’s are historically liberal and Brown has so far bucked hardcore conservatives, even on financial reform. It’s about passion, influence, and knowing exactly where these senators stand and why.

Like it or not, everyone knew where Kennedy stood because he was never afraid to tell them.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at