Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) in July. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Opinion writer

It is useless to set forth the themes and sentiments that I would like to hear tonight from President Trump during his first State of the Union address. He either won’t say them or, if he does, we’ll know that he is either insincere or simply clueless. A more interesting proposition is what I — perhaps with some other disaffected, former Republicans — would like to hear from Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was selected for the thankless task of delivering the Democratic response to the president. Other than making the cover of Sports Illustrated, it is hard to think of a more comparable curse that masquerades as an honor. Nevertheless, it will be enlightening to see the congressman that Democrats think is a future star.

Let me suggest that Kennedy should acknowledge reality: We are in abnormal, frightening times, led by an unfit president. Kennedy need not dwell on the sorry list of attacks on democratic norms, the maligning of the free press, the smears against the FBI, the racist expressions, and the self-dealing and financial corruption. Instead, I would like to hear what the Democrats plan to do about those offenses, and how they would check an out-of-control executive if they held the majorities in the House and Senate.

For starters, Kennedy might promise that a Democratic Congress would disapprove of Trump’s receipt of foreign emoluments, require him to divest (really divest) of his businesses, cease using the presidency to promote his businesses, rid the White House of nepotism and pass a law requiring the president to divulge his tax returns. They would do these things because, until now, every president in the modern era has adhered to an ethical standard that assured voters he was acting in the country’s interest instead of his own. We could be sure the president wasn’t financially indebted to a hostile power. This basic level of honest government used to be a given in American politics. It no longer is; the only way to prevent our descent into becoming a banana republic or oil-state kingdom (in which the autocrat has a piece of the action in everything) is for Congress to exert some control of the executive branch.

Kennedy should also make clear that Democrats take seriously both the letter and the spirit of their oaths and the Constitution. They will protect the special prosecutor, defend our intelligence community against spurious attacks and insist that the White House not deviate from decades of protocol that maintain a separation between partisan politics and the Justice Department. Lawmakers take an oath to defend the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic. To do this, they must insulate our electoral machinery from foreign manipulation and demand transparency from social media companies. Democrats should insist measures be undertaken to harden our electoral defenses. Democrats should embrace more stringent legislation to prohibit seeking or receiving foreign assistance in an election. Instead of threatening the free press, Kennedy can assure us his party will protect it by supporting a federal shield law.

Moving on, I would hope Kennedy would make the case for legal immigration as essential for the growth and health of America. At least one of the major parties should be economically literate when it comes to the benefits of immigration and our current economic needs (needs that require both skilled and unskilled workers). He should make the case that a great and decent country such as ours will not rip apart families and expel hard-working, law-abiding young people who were brought here as children. He should stress that great Americans come here when they are poor to make themselves and their adopted country rich, and they come from places that don’t necessarily look like Norway. He should be clear that leadership comes from the top. We cannot have equal opportunity and respect for our fellow citizens if our political leaders disrespect women and girls, praise neo-Nazis, demonize an entire religion and seek to deny any group of Americans full participation in our economy, in military service and in our electoral democracy.

Kennedy, I hope, would recognize the elements of the Affordable Care Act that need repair, and offer concrete suggestions that already have bipartisan support. He should point out the downsides of Trump’s health-care “reforms,” which look an awful lot like blowing up Obamacare by pricing people out of the exchanges. I’d also like to hear an accurate critique of the tax plan with an explanation for what an alternative that doesn’t increase the debt and widen income disparity would look like. He might even be candid: Unless we want to slash entitlements, now is no time to be hemorrhaging revenue.

And finally, we would welcome a stirring defense of American leadership in the world. The country could use a good explanation for why free trade, defense of democracies and strong alliances are in our own self-interest. He should help Americans understand why “America First” inevitably becomes “America Alone and Enfeebled.”

If he can do that — keeping his remarks pithy, his tone sunny and his remarks inclusive, he’ll put down a marker for his party and show non-Democrats that his side is capable of shouldering the responsibility of governing. And it certainly won’t hurt his own reputation as a young man with a compelling vision.

Read more by Jennifer Rubin:

Trump is tearing down the FBI and the Justice Department. Won’t the GOP stop him?

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