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Keller @ Large: Joe Kennedy Had A Good Night

BOSTON (CBS) - Let's get the People Magazine angle on Rep. Joe Kennedy III's Democratic response to the president's State of the Union Address out of the way right off the top: his delivery was most reminiscent of his grandfather, the late Sen. Robert Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy's delivery was smoother; Ted Kennedy's style more feverish, as was that of Joe Kennedy II, the former congressman. Young Joe caught the gist of Bobby's anguished idealism, not that the comparison will do him much good among voters under 60 for whom Bobby Kennedy is a grainy figure in a PBS documentary.

Joe Kennedy III
Rep. Joe Kennedy III delivers the Democratic response at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School, January 30, 2018. (WBZ-TV)

And young Joe's speech had one thing in common with the presidential address he was rebutting – they were both free of specifics. I guess the days when politicians used high-profile speeches to actually make detailed policy proposals are gone, if they ever really existed.

While Joe's speech – and the president's - will be quickly forgotten, Kennedy certainly avoided the SOTU response curse, which left significant political figures like Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio as somewhat ridiculous figures after flopping for various reasons.

Highlights included this semi-spiritual riff: "This administration isn't just targeting the laws that protect us – they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection. For them, dignity isn't something you're born with but something you measure. By your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size. Not to mention, the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The color of your skin. The God of your prayers."

We live in a time when the elites of both political parties compete vigorously for who can most emphatically trash other elites, and Kennedy held his own: "[The Trump] record is a rebuke of our highest American ideal: the belief that we are all worthy, we are all equal and we all count. In the eyes of our law and our leaders, our God and our government. That is the American promise."

Joe Kennedy III
Rep. Joe Kennedy III delivers the Democratic response at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School, January 30, 2018. (WBZ-TV)

And one passage invoking unity and commonality caught my ear: "We are bombarded with one false choice after another: Coal miners or single moms. Rural communities or inner cities. The coast or the heartland. As if the mechanic in Pittsburgh and the teacher in Tulsa and the daycare worker in Birmingham are somehow bitter rivals, rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged for those at the top."

Paging Elizabeth Warren – somebody borrowed your punchline.

There were missteps too.

Kennedy swallowed a good line about how "we choose pensions that are solvent," an excellent topic for Democrats to be focusing on. And while it was fine for him to address the Dreamers in Spanish (which he speaks fluently), he should have offered the English translation – "You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away" – first, followed by the Spanish.

Also, next time, bring a hanky with you and wipe away any spittle that collects on the corner of your mouth.

joe kennedy drool
Rep. Joe Kennedy says that was ChapStick on his lips, not drool, during his State of the Union response. (WBZ-TV)

Related: Joe Kennedy Says It Wasn't Drool

All in all, a good night for the congressman.

His selection by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was in part a slap at an emerging Kennedy rival, Rep. Seth Moulton, who backed a move to unseat Pelosi as leader after the 2016 election. Surely younger voters were at least somewhat glad to see someone of their generation have a turn in the spotlight.

And amid all the instantly-forgotten rhetoric was a hint at a future campaign strategy for a Democratic party in need of one. "Politicians can be cheered for the promises they make," he said. "Our country will be judged by the promises we keep."

Broken promises – of unification, reviving dying industries like coal, fixing immigration's problems, making us safer and at peace, making Washington work – are much likelier to bring down Trump and his party than anything Robert Mueller comes up with.

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