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Commentary: How should Joe Kennedy respond to Trump's State of the Union?

As Donald Trump and his advisers prepare for his primetime State of the Union address Tuesday night, the opposition will also be hard at work getting ready for a major speech of its own: the Democratic response. It's a time-honored tradition for the party out of power to deliver a rebuttal of the president's speech – and a monumentally difficult undertaking that has elevated the national prospects of some while relegating many others to irrelevance or worse, mockery. The State of the Union, with all its grandeur – delivered from the well of the House of Representatives before the nation's lawmakers, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court justices, is an awfully hard act to follow – for anyone. 

This year, Democrats have selected Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Massachusetts, for the job. In choosing the latest scion of Camelot, Democrats are hoping to show up the ill-mannered, outsider 71-year-old – who's shown tendencies toward racism, sexism, and outright boorishness – with his polar opposite. The 37-year-old Kennedy is the fresh-faced Harvard-trained lawyer steeped in public service in the generations-old tradition of his storied family. And the only thing he drinks is espresso. Kennedy is the Democratic Party's ideal of a young man.

Here's how Kennedy can take advantage of the opportunity before him:

Focus on the kitchen table. It will be critical that Kennedy starts with pocketbook concerns without getting lost in the weeds of policy to show that the Democratic Party understands the challenges facing working people in America. The response will land well if it's centered on access to affordable health care rather than the brinksmanship around CHIP; on creating good-paying jobs that can support a family rather than on the unemployment rate; and on expanding opportunity for us and our children, rather than on the mind-numbing details of tax policy.

Remind America that Donald Trump has failed to live up to his campaign promises. The sole legislative accomplishment of the Trump administration in its first year in office has been a tax bill that increases the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion and rewards millionaires with a bigger boon in breaks and loopholes than any previous administration - all while hurting middle class Americans over the long term by pushing 13 million off health care and reducing benefits for those making less than $75,00 per year. 

CBS News Poll: More Americans think Trump tax plan will hurt

Polling heading into the vote last year showed a majority of Americans saw the deal as a giveaway to the wealthy - and the numbers haven't gotten better for the GOP as the calendar marches on -- either on the tax bill or on its opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Without re-litigating debate over the tax bill, Kennedy should call out President Trump on his campaign claims that he'd help working people. He should offer examples illustrating how much the tax plan is helping the one-percenters, how his decimation of environmental regulations is benefiting oil and energy interests, and how he's installing Wall Street bankers to lead key government offices.

Broaden the message to reach rural America as well the urban centers. Rural America was a primary factor in Donald Trump's election. Yet in one of his first moves in office, Mr. Trump proposed a budget that would cut critical resources from programs ranging from rural development to water, from job training to airports. Where the president will seek to highlight wins in his first year in office to shore up his base, Kennedy would do well to point out where his administration's actions have failed to match up to his rhetoric.

Touch on the scandals, but don't dwell on the details. The endless headlines since 2016 linking this administration to everything from Russian collusion to obstruction of justice to an alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels and a second round of outrage over the infamous "grab 'em by the p*ssy" tapes have doubtless had an impact on the president's approval ratings, earning him the distinction of having the lowest popularity of any president in his first year of office in polling history. As such, a simple reference to the controversy will suffice - enough to remind viewers of their own discomfort with the daily controversies without derailing Kennedy's overall remarks from its substantive framework.

Throw down the gauntlet for Congressional Republicans. Inherent in all of the arguments made by Joe Kennedy must be a direct challenge to Republicans in Congress. It makes sense that GOP electeds have wanted to stand by the leader of their Party - especially when his agenda has aligned with the priorities of their donors as it did with the Trump tax bill. But the Democratic response to the State of the Union is as good a time as any to remind Republicans on the Hill - and their constituents back home - that their real allegiance must be to taxpayers and the people who elected them, or they should suffer the consequence in November.

Bring it all back to our values as Americans. There is always more that unites us than divides us, and this is one of the most important themes for Kennedy to hit. It won't be enough to highlight the challenges we face as nation. He'll need to call on our better angels and pay homage to this great cultural experiment called America -- whether he is talking about immigration reform that honors our values of inclusiveness or responding to an infrastructure plan that speaks to American ingenuity and hard work. And in the wake of everything we've witnessed so far from the Trump administration, Kennedy should remind us all of what Barack Obama called in his own inaugural speech "a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world - duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly."

It's hard to overemphasize the challenge of delivering the official State of the Union response. Coming on the heels of the State of the Union, the contrast of a lengthy direct-to-camera speech against live audience remarks by the Commander-in-Chief, it usually comes across as stilted and rehearsed, if not painfully mechanical. While Kennedy has shown great promise as a speaker - his floor speech skewering the administration on the Affordable Care Act went viral and his remarks in the aftermath of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally received upwards of 15 million views - history has not been kind to those who deliver the official response. And there's always the risk of creating a moment that overshadows the response entirely, whether it's Marco Rubio's parched mouth, Bobby Jindal's weirdly robotic delivery (think Kenneth from "30 Rock"), or Steve Beshear's declaration he was "a proud Republican, and Democrat, and mostly American."

Yet done right, Joe Kennedy has the opportunity to reach into the living rooms of millions of Americans to point out the holes in the State of the Union and the faults in the president's vision for the future and to show viewers that it's the Democratic Party that has their interests in mind. It's the starting gun for the 2018 races and should preview the foundational arguments we'll be hearing on the campaign trail this year.

And that is certainly worth watching tomorrow night.

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