Originally posted Friday March 30, 2018, at 4:30 PM.
You remember Joe Kennedy III, right? Robert F. Kennedy is his grandfather (he's one of those Kennedys), he's currently a member of the House of Representative (for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district), and he gave the Democratic response to Donald Trump's first State of the Union address back at the end of January (two hundred years ago in Trump time). Ring any bells?
"He delivered a powerful performance in a speaking slot that usually buries ambitious young politicians," Vox's Ezra Klein writes of Kennedy's post-SOTU performance. "And he did it by reminding Democrats that their rhetoric can be bigger than their divisions, that a party built on difference can still see its way to a national identity."
It was a good speech and it did send a powerful message—not just about Democratic unity, but also about Kennedy's ambitions. Politicians don't take on the unenviable task of delivering a SOTU response unless they're thinking about running for higher office. Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal both delivered GOP responses to State of the Union addresses when Obama was president before running in 2016—not that their SOTU responses helped either of those guys, of course, but giving the SOTU response allowed both men to play at looking presidential.
Kennedy, if you'll recall, delivered his speech to a room full of cheering, clapping students. Kennedy wasn't trying to look presidential. He was trying to look campaigning-for-presidential. We were supposed to have an easier time imagining Kennedy running in 2020 after watching that speech—and, hey, it worked. Lots of people were imagining Kennedy running for president after his SOTU response, Joy-Anne Reid included. It may have even crossed my mind. Kennedy's SOTU response was so good it inspired Fox News imbecile Tomi Lahren to call Kennedy a "nasty little ginger" and a "limp dick."
Anyway, Klein interviewed Joe Kennedy III on a recent episode of his podcast—"The Ezra Klein Show"—and, well, after listening to the interview I'm having a much harder time imagining Kennedy running for president now.
It's a wide-ranging interview—the same can be said of all of Ezra's interviews (I'm a fan, never miss a long and wonky episode!)—and Kennedy furiously works all the Democratic erogenous zones: resisting Trump, health care, jobs, reproductive freedom, immigration, education, jobs, LGBT rights, jobs, and on and on. Kennedy tries to sound like he's speaking with urgency but it comes across as unctuousness. But his manic pixie dream candidate routine is merely off-putting. What's disqualifying is Kennedy's answers to Klein's questions about legalizing recreational marijuana.
They had two extended exchanges on the topic and I've transcribed 'em both. (Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the entire interview here.)
EZRA KLEIN: I don't feel comfortable saying let’s legalize heroin. That’s not where I am on this. But certainly on something like marijuana I feel comfortable saying, well, we legalized that, we’ve legalized that in my home state, we’ve legalized that in D.C., and there doesn’t seem to be terrible problems. You have a different mind on this. I’m curious, given your concern about the consequences of the illicit trade, how you think about the question of keeping [pot] illicit or beginning to open that up a little bit, so at least what is happening is under the law, you can regulate it, you can watch it, you can keep some control over it.
JOE KENNEDY III: So this one, um, this one’s a tough one for me. My views are not do not exactly line up with my own state and it’s something I’m struggling with. I think, look, there’s—when it comes to legalization of marijuana, if that’s something that society has decided that we want to do, fine. I think we’ve got to be really careful about what exactly that means and how we do it. So, we decriminalized it when I was in the court system, when I was trying cases, or shortly thereafter, if I remember the years right, in Massachusetts. When we decriminalized it it actually had a pretty big consequence for the way that Massachusetts prosecutors went about trying cases in terms of—because an odor of marijuana was, at last initially, because marijuana was an illegal substance, if you smelled it in a car, you could search a car. When it became decriminalized you couldn’t do that. So that was the way that we hadn’t—the base case that prosecutors used to search cars for under cover contraband, guns, knives, a whole bunch of other stuff, all of that got thrown out the window. That’s not to say that’s right or wrong, but that is to say that when that went through a public referendum, which is how that law was passed, I don't think anybody had much though to you’re actually gonna change one of the foundational principles for law enforcement that we use in our court system. There is no reliable, at least in Massachusetts, to see if someone is under the influence of marijuana. Presumably with more widespread usage of marijuana, that is a threat that’s going to go up. I think it’s worth us understanding, well, do we have the tools that are necessary in order to keep the community safe as we actually try to go through and make this a substance that is far more widespread. It’s something that, um, while there’s the casual marijuana user isn’t something I have a whole lot of concerns about there is evidence and data about youth, teens, adolescents getting access to marijuana…
Kennedy's beef with legalizing pot is that doing so stopped cops from randomly pulling people over and searching their cars? He cites this—the ability of the police to search anyone's car, at any time, so long as the cops remember to put, "Thought I smelled pot!" in the incident reports—as a "foundational principle" for law enforcement and something that voters didn't have in mind when they legalized recreational marijuana. (Something voters have had to do because our elected officials are too cowardly to do it themselves.)
Joe Kennedy III sounds like he's channeling Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III here.
What Kennedy is pining for here amounts to a stop-and-frisk program for people in cars—or a stop-and-harass-racial-minorities-in-cars program. Stop-and-frisk on sidewalks was ruled unconstitutional by the courts and has been shown to be ineffective by social scientists. And if it's not okay and not helpful to randomly stop people on the street and search their persons for no reason whatsoever, how can it be okay or helpful to randomly stop people in vehicles and search their cars for a subjective, bullshit, easily abused reason like, "Something smells funny!"?
And, I'm sorry, but Kennedy's claim that voters somehow weren't aware they were depriving law enforcement officials of the ability to harass suspected pot smokers is bullshit. Preventing cops from harassing people who might have weed on them—and it was mostly racial minorities who came in for this kind of harassment—was cited by the Stranger Election Control Board in its endorsement of 1-502, the 2012 ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in Washington state:
Passing Initiative 502 would make Washington the first state to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of pot. Meanwhile, it would license farmers to grow it, companies to distribute it, and stores to sell it. In doing so, I-502 would stop roughly 10,000 marijuana arrests a year in Washington State, freeing up law-enforcement resources while at the same time putting a stop to the pot-law-enabled harassment of racial minorities. According to a study released last week by three New York academics, blacks and Latinos in Washington use marijuana at a lower rate than white people, but they are arrested for pot at 2.9 times the rate of white people.
Similar arguments were no doubt made in Massachusetts when pot was on the ballot there in 2008 and 2016.
Klein, to his credit, pushes back:
EZRA KLEIN: On the one hand you gave an example that I read, I think, the opposite of the way one might. Which is the idea that marijuana was a way you could search cars. That to me, the first thing I hear is that is a wonderful way for racial bias to creep in and act inside of the legal system. That that kind of discretion given what we know about marijuana use, given what we know about who gets searched, um, being that marijuana use is equal among the population but who gets searched is not equal among the population, that is sort of exactly one of the reasons that I tend to be pro-legalization. On the other hand when I talk to drug policy experts they say that, you know, that people tend to think about the pot smokers they know but the pot is getting smoked by five, ten, fifteen percent of the population who has a lot of trouble with self-control, just like the majority of alcohol is drunk by people who have the biggest alcohol problems. And that as you build these markets and build incentives, that they’re the ones who don’t end up being okay even as most people are fine. And that to me feels like where this gets very difficult. You do have populations that end up being treated or reacting to this very differently. But those trade-offs, I think we all want to think about the norm when the trade-offs act most intensely among either marginalized communities or communities whose psychology or physiology reacts differently to these substances.
JOE KENNEDY III: So I agree with you 100% and, um, I very much take your first point on the search piece. And you’re right, clearly. The piece that I would just kind of put out there is that there was very little discussion about, at least that I was aware of during that course of that decriminalization debate, as to—about whether this was an issue to look at disparate racial outcomes in the search of motor vehicles and whether the proper way of doing that was to decriminalize marijuana. Right? And so this was a consequence of but not the motivation to the law. We clearly have inequities in our criminal justice system. I was a prosecutor. I saw that every single day. I saw extremely dedicated public servants that were trying to work through it but, you know, I worked for two different two different offices in Massachusetts and I’m proud to have done so, it’s a great job, are criminal justice system needs a good hard look at how we address the racial disparities that we’re confronting. Undoubtedly. Drugs are a big piece to that debate. The part that I don’t think gets enough attention here is, if you want to talk about looking at this as a public health issue, and not a criminal justice issue, which I whole heartedly agree with, then let’s invest in our public health system. And were not having that discussion.
There's so much bullshit here that I scarcely know where to begin. How Kennedy brushes past the "disparate racial outcomes" and then rushes to praise the motives of absolutely everyone who plays a role in creating those disparate racial outcomes? The suggestion that you can either treat drug use as a public health issue or legalize marijuana but you can't do both at once? (Hey, Joe, looking for money to invest in our public health system? Here you go.) The suggestion that teenagers can't get their hands on pot in states where it isn't legal?
Ugh, Joe. If you do decide to run for president you're gonna need to do on this social issue what our last Democratic president did on a very different social issue: EVOLVE.