Since Barack Obama left the White House, Democrats nationally have struggled to articulate what the party stands for and where it is headed.
But Tuesday night, in the official Democratic response to the State of the Union, US Representative Joe Kennedy III might have been the first person in a year to do exactly that.
The Massachusetts Democrat’s response to President Trump’s State of the Union captured the anger and frustration Democrats feel toward Trump in 2018, but he also articulated a positive vision that their party fights for average folks, while rejecting the divisiveness of the Trump rhetoric.
And then there was Kennedy’s own profile, which got a boost from a speech that was warmly received.
The message of fighting for the little guy might not fit on a bumper sticker, but it’s a return to a longtime Democratic tenet and an improvement from where Democrats have been since Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election over a year ago.
Since then, the party has remained split between the Clinton wing and the Bernie Sanders wing. The party has been leaderless. And those are just the big-picture issues. In the past four days alone, the CEO of the Democratic National Committee quit, the party announced it is still $6 million in debt, and, internally, a debate has roiled over superdelegates.
But on Tuesday night, on Kennedy’s watch, it looked like a party with a clearly articulated agenda and the passion to push back against a GOP-controlled Washington.
Initially, some questioned why Kennedy was chosen to give the speech. As the party aims to give a greater voice to people of color, women, and those in the LGBT community, a white, heterosexual man is not exactly a dynamic choice. Add to that the fact that Kennedy comes from the party’s best-known dynasty at the moment when Democrats are pushing hard to find new names to lead them, and the notion that he’s not as progressive as some corners of the party might like, and he’s an odd pick.
But the speech — which was broadcast in front of an audience inside a Fall River technical school — and indeed the representative himself ended up being the perfect fit. A grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, he gives a nod to the party’s past, but at just 37 years old he also represents the future.
He weaved together a narrative on which both Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters could agree. The speech itself carried a sense of momentum sorely lacking in Trump’s own State of the Union address, even with all of the pageantry of the presidency. And probably most important for the sake of Democratic unity: Kennedy isn’t immediately angling for a higher office, which meant that viewers could take the address for what it was, a smart speech with no obvious personal agenda.
Some suggested it was easy to see a lot of Obama in his speech. This wasn’t a bad comparison, given that Obama was the last unifying figure in the party. Like Obama, Kennedy talked about how Republicans offered “false choices.” And like the former president often did in major speeches, Kennedy ended his talk on Tuesday night with a rhetorical flourish linking events throughout American history to today.
There was much discussion in recent days about the so called “response speech curse” — basically the idea that those who preceded Kennedy in this role have gone on to stumble politically. It’s safe to say he avoided such a fate.
Yes, he admitted to using a little bit too much Chapstick before taking the stage, but the speech did what it needed to do, and then some. For a Democratic party in need of a win, last night may have been the first step in breaking the cycle of missteps that has plagued them since November 2016.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.