Opinion: Why Democrats Are Desperate for Some Kennedy Dazzle

The JPK3 boomlet is upon us, and it starts with the State of the Union

In Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democratic leaders get someone seasoned enough not to embarrass them but junior enough not to challenge them, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
In Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democratic leaders get someone seasoned enough not to embarrass them but junior enough not to challenge them, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 30, 2018 at 5:01am

It’s hard to describe the full swoon among progressives that’s been underway since House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi announced that Rep. Joe Kennedy III, known among liberal super-fans as “JPK3,” had accepted the deceptively difficult task of delivering the response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

“My God, he looks like a red-headed Ted,” wrote a contributor on The Daily Kos, the website that re-established itself in 2017 as a hugely influential forum for progressive activists.

“More like a cross between Ted and Bobby,” said another.

“Yes, Ted and Bobby, with a little bit of Prince Harry thrown in.”

“I think he looks like a red-headed Chris O’Donnell from NCIS LA.” You see where it’s going.

Watch: What You Won’t See On Camera at the State of the Union

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When MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid asked her million-plus Twitter followers to rank 2020 presidential contenders over the weekend, Kennedy (a three-term House member from Massachusetts) and newly elected Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, shared the top spot, with some form of a Harris-Kennedy ticket winning out.

In selecting the telegenic and affable young congressman, Democrats are cleverly putting on center stage a young man who could, by all accounts, grow into a national leader someday. He has degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Law, where professor Larry Tribe called him “a fabulous student” and “truly humble.” Throw in stints as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America (hola Spanish fluency) and as a local prosecutor, and he’s about as good as a candidate can get on paper. And unlike other “rising stars” on Capitol Hill, Kennedy’s name doesn’t garner the eye rolls that are dished out in plentiful supply for senators or House members whose outrage these days is a little extra righteous when the cameras are rolling.

Gasping for oxygen

As the grandson of the late Robert Kennedy and a scion of the Kennedy political dynasty, the congressman is already a celebrity. He has nearly as many Twitter followers as constituents. When he delivered a late-night committee speech on the repeal of the Obamacare legislation inspired by his great-uncle, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the video was watched more than 10 million times on Facebook, including by Howard Dean. “This is a Kennedy who could be president someday,” he wrote.

The bedazzled response among liberals to Kennedy’s growing profile in 2017, along with the announcement that he’ll take center stage Tuesday night, reveals the kind of fundamental truths inside the Democratic Party that you don’t typically get outside of a primary election. The Democratic base is desperate to be inspired. They want to believe in a person as much as they believe in their principles. They are hungry for someone, anyone, who will stand up to Donald Trump without getting in the mud with Trump when they’re doing it.

In Kennedy, activists hear the fight they don’t get when they listen to the leaders of their party. Are Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer opposed to Trump? Of course! Will they work with him? Maybe. Will they pay for his wall? Absolutely not. Except for a deal on the Dreamers. Unless that falls through. And then they’ll reopen the government anyway. Pelosi and Schumer have real constraints in how they balance governing and obstructing, but it’s not exactly oxygen for the Resistance. Kennedy is their oxygen.

The decision to tap Kennedy for the role says a great deal about the leaders of the Democratic Party, including the fact that they remain wildly risk averse. Even in the year of #MeToo, and just two months after black women voters delivered Democrats a crucial majority in a must-win off-year election, they’ve selected a white man from a famous family as their standard-bearer. Democratic leaders are trying to turn a page, but are they going forward or backward?

Playing it safe

In Kennedy, Democratic leaders know they get a dose of Kennedy glamour and Democratic nostalgia wrapped in a young fresh body. He’s seasoned enough not to blow the chance, but too junior to use the opportunity to mount a genuine challenge to their leadership. At 37 years old, Kennedy was just a baby when Steny Hoyer was elected to the House. He was 6 when Pelosi was elected to the House and 12 when Jim Clyburn was elected from South Carolina. This is unlikely to be the face of their immediate replacements.

But you have to give the congressman credit for stepping into the arena with the president Tuesday night for the kind of scrutiny that leaves the serviceable performances completely forgotten and makes the bombs the stuff of legend. Does anyone remember who gave the Democratic response to President Reagan in 1983 and 1984? Joe Biden. How about 1982? Ted Kennedy. See what I mean?

But close your eyes, and you can still see then-Gov. Bobby Jindal standing in front of what looked like the original sound stage for “Gone With the Wind,” or Sen. Marco Rubio, cotton-mouthed, innocently reaching for a sip of water only to hang his political aspirations out to dry along with his sweat-drenched shirt. This is a moment that can go horribly wrong.

Still, Kennedy is well positioned for the job, based on his short but strong track record of delivering inspiration without aggravation. He also certainly knows his job well enough to hydrate before speaking and to avoid standing directly in front of large mansions or old diners (a mistake former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear committed last year).

Kennedy will speak from his district at the Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Massachusetts, a working-class town where a local columnist said succinctly last week, “We are the struggle,” imploring the young congressman to speak not only to that struggle, but also to the very real hopes that students there (many of them children of immigrants) still have to rise above the walls in front of them, despite all the noise in the country right now. “Roar young lion roar,” he wrote to Kennedy.

It’s advice the entire party should take to heart.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.