The Slatest

Who Was Joe Kennedy’s State of the Union Response For?

Rep. Joe Kennedy III claps on stage in front of a car and an American flag.
Rep. Joe Kennedy III takes the stage in Fall River, Massachusetts, to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

The political lethality of State of the Union responses is a durable bit of Washington conventional wisdom that, like many bits of Washington wisdom, has little in the the way of real evidence to support it. Most who’ve done responses in recent years have survived the event with their reputations largely intact. Only two have seen their careers clearly decline: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, felled by a corruption scandal, and Bobby Jindal, felled by poor governance and his being Bobby Jindal. It is true that most responders who run for the presidency don’t wind up performing very well, but then again, most candidates don’t. As hilarious as it was to see Marco Rubio lunge desperately for a bottle of water in 2013, that’s not what lost him the Republican primary two years ago.

To boot, responses in the Trump era have been made easier by the fact that they follow speeches by a man whose literacy and mental faculties are frequently in question. The bar to clear Tuesday night was set last year by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who began the first major Democratic speech of the Trump presidency by saying, “I am a proud Republican, and Democrat and mostly, American.” That appeal to moderate, middle-of-the-road, largely red and mostly white America was delivered from a diner in Lexington, Kentucky, filled with mostly white Americans told to sit painfully still and look average for the cameras. It was inevitable that the Democrats would pick a location with similar considerations in mind this time around— my money was on the bottom of an Appalachian mine shaft. They ultimately chose a vocational school in Fall River, Massachusetts. The podium was placed in front of a Mustang with its hood propped open, as though some mechanic-in-training working on it had just looked at the clock, wiped the grime off his hands and the sweat off his brow, and taken a seat among the crowd waiting to hear from Tuesday night’s speaker, the latest favored son from that family synonymous with elbow grease and demanding labor, the Kennedys.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III—grandson of Bobby, great nephew of Jack and Ted—has served in Barney Frank’s old seat since 2013. His profile has been elevated over the past year by a series of media appearances and a few viral videos of his oratory in Congress, including a speech he gave in March condemning the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. It’s not bad, honestly, although it features a tic magnified significantly last night—an odd, halting cadence sloppily lifted from Barack Obama. So too were some of Kennedy’s rhetorical beats. “We are bombarded with one false choice after another,” he said. “Coal miners or single moms? Rural communities or inner cities? The coasts or the heartland?” You’d have been forgiven for expecting him to turn to a riff on how there isn’t a liberal or conservative America here, but he instead veered into a line with a bit of bite more befitting an era of Democratic politics colored by the influence of the Sanders campaign and the grassroots Resistance movement. “As if the mechanic in Pittsburgh, a teacher in Tulsa, and a day care worker in Birmingham,” he continued, “are bitter rivals rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged towards those at the top.”

Among those at the top are, of course, the Kennedys. Joe’s own biography includes predictable nouns like Cape Cod, Stanford, and Harvard. This isn’t to say that he’s obviously insincere. He exudes something resembling earnestness; the resemblance is close enough that you’re encouraged to believe he’s delivering his ”all men are created equal”–s and “more perfect union”–s with something approaching real conviction. He also did reasonably well with his obligatory lines in Spanish, a language burnished by Kennedy during his time, naturally, in the Peace Corps. This was a section addressed to Dreamers. “You are part of our story,” he said. “We will fight for you. And we will not walk away.” He neglected to mention that Senate Democrats seem ready to do so, which was probably for the better. The excuses might have been lost in translation.

All told, his performance was likely solid enough to satisfy rank-and-file Democrats and too insubstantial for those whose enthusiasm for Democrats might be activated by an actual policy agenda. The few specific policy areas he mentioned were shot off in quick succession. “We choose a living wage and paid leave and affordable child care your family needs to survive,” he said. “We choose pensions that are solvent, trade pacts that are fair, roads and bridges that won’t rust away, a good education that you can afford. We choose a health care system that offers you mercy, whether you suffer from cancer or depression or addiction.” Decent stuff, but what does it all mean? Does “a good education that you can afford” entail free college? Support for charter schools? What kind of health care system will deliver mercy most effectively to most Americans? A single-payer system, perhaps? Kennedy is in the minority of both House progressives and House Democrats as a whole who have not signed on to Medicare for All, which puts him at odds also with the majority of the party’s likely presidential contenders in 2020. A major rift in the party rendered invisible. That’s how the brass likes speeches like this and in Kennedy they found an appropriately telegenic cipher, although a makeup mishap left him with a distracting sheen around his mouth that his great-uncle or Richard Nixon might have warned him about were they around.

Ultimately, one can’t understand who Kennedy actually is as a policy thinker without marijuana. In the summer of 2015, the House took up two votes relevant to the growing legal weed industry. The first was on the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, which is voted on annually to prevent the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana providers and patients who are compliant with state law. The second was on an amendment aimed at protecting states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana from Justice Department interference. In a reflection of pot’s changing politics, both pieces of legislation were supported not only by the vast majority of Democrats, but also a significant number of Republicans: 67 for Rohrabacher–Farr and 45 for the other amendment. Kennedy voted against both. Put together, these and a record of other similar votes make his opposition to liberal marijuana reforms look a bit like fanaticism. Anti-pot policy is, in fact, a Kennedy family business nowadays. Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy co-founded the anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. It more accurately might have been called Unpopular, Wasteful, and Racially Discriminatory Approaches to Marijuana.

All of this is worth mentioning not because pot is a singularly critical issue, although it is genuinely very important, but because it illustrates just how empty the talk we can expect in the days to come about how the Democrats have found a compelling fresh face is going to be. Policywise, what isn’t unremarkable about Kennedy is regressive. But the party’s centrists, perhaps miffed by the aggressively progressive shifts afoot among many of the party’s emerging leaders, are going to need their own rising star to hitch their fortunes to. For that reason, Kennedy’s one to watch—carefully.