During the past two weeks in both New Jersey and national politics, two themes have been predominant: Family legacy and political courage. In the New Jersey Seventh District race for the US House of Representatives, in which Republican Tom Kean, Jr. is attempting to unseat incumbent Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski, these two themes intersect.
First, political legacies.
There are two powerful Republican family legacies in the present election cycle: The Dick Cheney legacy, to which his daughter, Congresswoman Liz Cheney is the legatee, and the Kean family legacy, of which Tom Kean, Jr. is the rightful heir.
Both legacies feature records of outstanding public service, Dick Cheney as a Congressman, Defense Secretary, and Vice President; Tom Kean. Sr., as Governor of New Jersey and 9-11 Commission Chair, and his father, Robert Kean as a Congressman. Yet there is a feature of the Kean legacy that far outpaced, until now, any aspect of the Cheney legacy: Political moral courage.
This is not to say that Dick Cheney is lacking in principle. I served with him in the Bush 43 administration, and in spite of serious disagreements with him and his aides, I know him to be a person of decency and deeply held and well-thought beliefs.
Robert and Tom Kean together, however, set a standard of political moral courage unsurpassed by virtually every modern New Jersey political figure except for one notable exception, ironically enough, Tom Kean’s 1981 New Jersey Democratic general election gubernatorial opponent, Jim Florio.
The Kean family profile-in-courage was first established by Robert Kean in his battles against 1) xenophobic and antisemitic forces attempting to prevent the opening of America’s doors to Jewish refugees from the Holocaust during the Second World War; and 2) isolationists opposed to the establishment of the State of Israel. Tom Kean assumed Robert’s mantle of political moral courage in defeating the same forces of hate in his successful efforts to introduce the Holocaust in the public-school curricula of the State of New Jersey. Meanwhile as governor, Jim Florio established his own brand of moral political courage in his efforts to outlaw assault weapons against the resistance of the nefarious gun lobby.
During the past month, however, matters took a different turn with respect to the Cheney and Kean
families. Liz Cheney established a new historic national model of political courage with her success in holding accountable a fascist president, Donald Trump and his authoritarian supporters in their insurrectionist efforts to steal the presidential election from Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Tom Kean, Jr., in his Congressional campaign, was abandoning his family legacy of political moral courage with his shameless acquiescence in Trumpism and his failure to condemn Trumpist authoritarian extremism.
And the refusal of Tom Kean, Jr. to disavow and repudiate mail pieces bearing the disclaimer, “Paid for by New Jersey Republican State Committee, Inc.” and boldly proclaiming, “Tom Kean, Jr. supports the Trump agenda,” irrevocably and unequivocally established himself as a Trump defender.
Accordingly, the following Liz Cheney statement regarding Trump defenders made at the conclusion of the opening public session of the House January 6 committee session last night applies with particular force and appropriateness to Trump defender Tom Kean,Jr.:
“I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. ‘There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.’”
In July, 2021, I authored a column pledging my endorsement to Tom Kean, Jr. in his Congressional campaign, yet warning that his embrace of Trumpism and the leading Trump Congressional enabler, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy could prove politically fatal to him. I suggested he invite Liz Cheney to open his campaign instead of McCarthy.
I didn’t expect Kean, Jr. to follow my public advice, but I never anticipated how abjectly he would become a pawn of Kevin McCarthy. The Kean, Jr. campaign, with its obsequiousness to Trumpism, gives the appearance of a Kevin McCarthy production from top to bottom. There is no question that Tom Kean, Jr. has allowed his personal political ambition to prevail over any policy instinct he has regarding the best interest of the American future.
By contrast, Liz Cheney clearly put country over personal ambition and has become an authentic American hero. She knows that her Republican future is over, and she has little chance of ever again winning a GOP nomination for any high office.
And she doesn’t care. Tom Kean, Jr., whom I obviously no longer support, has displayed cravenness and political selfishness in the process of saving his political career, while Liz Cheney has displayed valor and generosity of spirit in her efforts to save American democracy.
Yet there is one major irony remaining regarding the Kean, Jr. campaign to date. Despite all his obsession with presenting himself as a Trump acolyte, he comes out of the primary as a severely diminished figure with his chances of achieving victory over Malinowski substantially reduced. In political terms, while Liz Cheney projects strength even with the certain prospect of defeat in her forthcoming Wyoming primary, Tom Kean, Jr. in political terms after his primary looks like the 97-pound weakling in the famous Charles Atlas advertisement.
To begin with, there is the intensity factor. Tom Malinowski received 34,290 votes in this week’s primary, Kean, Jr. received a paltry by comparison 23,874 votes. And while Malinowski was receiving 94.4 percent of the votes cast in the Democratic primary, Kean, Jr. was receiving only 45.6 percent of the Republicans, having been outpolled by his MAGA opponents.
The MAGA factor puts Kean, Jr. at a very severe disadvantage as he approaches the November election. He will be obsessed with obtaining the support of MAGA voters who mistrusted him and refused to vote for him in the primary. If he trends rightward in order to obtain their support, particularly on the gun issue, he will completely alienate any remaining swing voters and further motivate the Malinowski base. If he doesn’t make a rightward turn, many MAGA voters will stay at home.
Then, there is the gravitas factor. Due to his growing expertise and experience in foreign affairs, Tom Malinowski has grown substantially in terms of gravitas. Due to the increasing image of Tom Kean, Jr. as a puppet of Kevin McCarthy, his gravitas is constantly decreasing.
Yet matters could get worse for Tom Kean, Jr. Among the Washington GOP cognoscenti, there is growing talk of a GOP House Leadership palace coup to supplant Kevin McCarthy as GOP Speaker-in-Waiting with Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan.
That would be catastrophic for the Kean, Jr. campaign. Jim Jordan gives the media appearance of a congenital thug who makes Kevin McCarthy look like a statesman by comparison. If in October it appears that Jordan is headed for the Speakership if the Republicans capture the House, this will be worth five points to Malinowski in the polls.
Still, in spite of all the facts set forth in this column, there is a conventional wisdom among the Trenton chattering class that due to the Kean legacy, Tom, Jr. will eke out a victory. Certainly, from an historical point of view, the Bob Kean-Tom Kean legacy retains all its historical magnificence. Yet as an asset to his campaign, Tom Kean, Jr. has devalued this legacy with the stain and toxicity of Trumpism. I don’t see that situation changing before Election Day.
The likely historical verdict on Tom Kean, Jr.: A good, decent, and intelligent person who lacked the political judgment and courage to qualify him for higher office.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.