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Opinion The new Kennedy, and the long game for the Democrats

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

Forget Donald Trump. Forget Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer – and almost all the leaders of Congress. Forget Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and those other liberal Democrats contemplating the presidency in 2020.

Every one of them is either approaching 70 years old or beyond it. They represent a national gerontocracy, a rule of the elderly, yesterday's political class.

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The Republicans have long been the Grand Old Party, and never more so than today; at 71, Mr. Trump is the oldest elected president in U.S. history. He gives old age new life.

The Democrats are not a geyser of youth, either. In a country where half the population is under 38, the party's advanced age is more albatross than anchor. So when they went looking for a fresh face to deliver their response to the State of the Union Address this week, Democrats had a challenge. Who could be the emblem of youth in a party dominated by old men and women? Who could follow the septuagenarian President, in prime time, with a compelling progressive appeal?

In Joseph P. Kennedy III, scion of the storied political dynasty, they found their voice. At 37, Mr. Kennedy is a three-term congressman and a lawyer. His grandfather was Robert Francis Kennedy, the crusading attorney-general and senator murdered 50 years ago this June; his great uncles were John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the beloved president, and Edward M. Kennedy, one of the great legislators of his time.

The Kennedys have learned that success in one generation does not necessarily follow in the next. Joe's father, Joseph P. Kennedy II (Bobby's eldest son), was a Massachusetts congressman; Ted's son, Patrick Kennedy, was a congressman from Rhode Island. Good politicians both; they went no higher.

Joe Kennedy's response to the State of the Union address this week was the best of the past 20 years. He spoke at a vocational school in Fall River, Mass., in his district. The venue was an auto shop, which felt oddly contrived; the red-haired Mr. Kennedy appeared without a suit jacket.

He painted a dire picture of the United States in 2018: "A government that struggles to stay open, Russia knee-deep in our democracy, an all-out war on environmental protection, hatred and supremacy proudly marching in our streets, bullets tearing through our classrooms, concerts and congregations. And that nagging, sinking feeling, no matter your political beliefs: This is not right. This is not who we are."

In his lament for his country caught in a senior moment under a geriatric President, Mr. Kennedy evoked Jack Kennedy in 1960 bemoaning Dwight Eisenhower. Or, Bobby Kennedy in 1968, assailing Lyndon Johnson.

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In his inaugural address, JFK declared that "a torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." He was its avatar – an icon of youth and captain of cool, celebrating public service and inspiring young Americans to enter it. He sent the United States to the moon and established the Peace Corps, which Congressman Kennedy, fresh out of Stanford, would join a generation later.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy sought to rally a people dispirited by this divisive, incendiary President. "Bullies may land a punch," he said. "They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in the defence of their future."

It was not the Gettysburg Address. Nor was it Barack Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, which paved the way to his presidency.

What was striking was Mr. Kennedy's poise and elegance. There was a touch of poetry ("We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country,") a hallmark of the Kennedys. And the moral anger: "This administration isn't just targeting the laws that protect us – they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection."

The guy can talk. Under Mr. Trump, who seemingly does not read or write, oratory has been a casualty. His speeches are sophomoric, filled with tired superlatives. His presidency is the kingdom of cliché.

Mr. Kennedy will not be president any time soon; the Democrats may choose Mr. Biden or Mr. Sanders to oppose Mr. Trump. Or someone younger and ambitious such as Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand or Kamala Harris, all fresh politicians with fresh ideas.

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Still, they represent the middle distance. The long game belongs to Joe Kennedy, a tribune of a rising generation, the most promising son of the House of Kennedy since Jack, Bobby and Ted catapulted into the 1960s.

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