Rep. Joe Kennedy looks to raise profile with Trump response

Rep. Joe Kennedy looks to raise profile with Trump response
© Greg Nash

Even though he’s a member of America’s most famous political family, Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyPressley responds to Pelosi dismissal of votes against border bill Democratic outrage grows over conditions at border detention centers Democratic lawmakers pay tense visit to Texas migrant facility MORE III (D-Mass.) has kept a relatively low profile since entering Congress in 2013.

That will change on Tuesday night, when the 37-year-old lawmaker gives the Democratic response to President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE’s first State of the Union address.

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Democratic congressional leaders, hoping to win back the House and Senate in the midterm elections, say they chose the grandson of the late Robert Kennedy to respond to Trump because he is a “relentless fighter for working Americans.”

Democratic strategist David Wade called Kennedy “an inspired choice.”

“He’s the best of both worlds: a fresh face with a storied name, lots of charisma and zero baggage,” Wade said. “His speeches go viral because he communicates in modern language. He doesn’t sound like he was invented in a focus group.”

And being a Kennedy only helps.

“He obviously carries a name that a lot of the base still loves,” said Jon Selib, a Democratic strategist. “A big part of the 2018 strategy is to keep the base fired up, and he can play that part.”

At the same time, the choice surprised some Democrats and has been met with some criticism.

Kennedy is a white man giving a speech for a political party that increasingly leans on minority voters for support.

“The only question is whether Democrats would have been better served picking someone who is not a white male to highlight the diversity of the party in contrast to Trump,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

It also comes as the country continues to grapple with sexual harassment and misconduct charges against figures in entertainment, business and politics.

“What about the #MeToo movement? Shouldn’t Democrats build upon this amazing moment and select a woman?” one Democratic strategist said. “Or couldn’t they have selected someone who would amplify immigration or one of the policy issues that highlight our differences?”

Others say they trust Kennedy will perform well at an uneasy task.

“Given all that’s been going on with health care, he’s done a good job at driving that message and has been really successful at it,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who worked for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“I’ve been impressed with his discipline. He’s done a good job of keeping his head down, working for his constituents and finding the right time to say something,” added Manley, who while working for former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSteyer's impeachment solution is dead wrong The Hill's Morning Report - House Democrats clash over next steps at border Democrats look to demonize GOP leader MORE (D-Nev.) was involved in prior State of the Union response picks.

In selecting Kennedy, party leaders sought to steer clear of any Democrats who may be considering running for president in 2020. They also bypassed newly elected Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who defeated Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Alabama senator says Trump opposed to Sessions Senate bid The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 jitters hit both parties in the Senate MORE in a hotly contested race last month.

Selecting Kennedy is a nod to the idea of letting a new generation of Democrats bubble up and play a greater role in the party.

“He’s not a bomb thrower. He’s thoughtful, articulate and looks like he’s in it to be the best member of Congress he can be,” Manley said.

Kennedy is expected to deliver the Democratic response from Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Mass., before a crowd of students and nearby residents.

“My hope is to make the argument for a country where every one of us is guaranteed the social and economic justice we deserve,” Kennedy said in a statement provided by his office. He added that the school and the city of Fall River “will help highlight the resilience and ingenuity that makes our nation strong.”

Giving the response to the State of the Union address can be a thankless task. Few remember that last year’s response to Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress was delivered by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

Some do remember Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioLiberal think tank: GOP paid parental leave proposals are too narrow GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist House passes bills to boost small business cybersecurity MORE’s (R-Fla.) response to the 2013 State of the Union address by then-President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJesse Jackson calls on Trump to pardon Rod Blagojevich #ObamaWasBetterAt trends after Trump attacks on minority congresswomen Biden says his presidency is not 'a third term of Obama' MORE, but that’s more due to Rubio’s frequent drinks of water than anything he said.

Zelizer predicted that even if there are hiccups for Kennedy, it won’t hurt him too much.

“He is not quite a prime-time politician yet, so he could probably afford it if the response turns into the kind of blunder we have seen in the past,” he added.

Manley, for his part, urged the naysayers to cut Kennedy some slack in their criticism.

“It’s one of the worst jobs in all of politics,” he said. “You’re going up against the majesty of a president addressing the nation in a House chamber. It’s awfully tough to go up against that. All I can say is good luck and Godspeed.”