Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) had the utterly thankless task of delivering the response to the State of the Union. Speaking in front of a live audience that frequently applauded was smart. Did he look awfully young and have a distracting bead of sweat (or was it saliva) at the corner of his mouth? Yes, but by gosh he gave a fair to very good speech. (Moreover, millennials are overwhelmingly anti-Trump so a youthful image for the Democrats is probably a net plus.)
On Tuesday I urged Kennedy to give a nod to reality, by saying, for example: We are in abnormal, frightening times, led by an unfit president. He did just that: “Many have spent the last year, anxious, angry, afraid, we all feel the fractured fault lines across our country.” He went on, “We hear the voices of Americans who are forgotten and forsaken. Corporate profits climb but fail to give their workers their fair share. A government that struggles to keep itself open. Russia, knee deep in our democracy. An all-out war on environmental protection. A justice department rolling back civil rights by the day. Hatred and supremacy proudly marching in our streets. Bullets tearing through our classrooms, concerts and congregations, targeting our safest and sacred places. This nagging and sinking feeling, no matter your political beliefs, this is not right, this is not who we are.” The nagging and sinking feeling this is not right, this is not who we are. That surely will resonate with Democrats, independents and despondent Republicans and ex-Republicans.
He also drilled down on the abuses of power and violations of democratic norms that have intensified just this week. “This administration is not just targeting the laws that protect us, they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.” Moreover, especially for Democrats who too often fall into a laundry list of constituent complaints, he made an admirable stab at unity — real unity, unlike the pretense of unity that President Trump cynically set forth. Kennedy insisted that “we are all equal, that we all count in the eyes of our laws, our leaders, our God, and our government. That is the American promise.” And indeed, it’s what Republicans would abandon and, worse, reject on the premise that America is a pitiful giant willing to take only people who are already successful and look like us.
Kennedy also correctly identified the fallacy behind Trump’s populist appeal. “They are turning American lives into a zero-sum game,” he said. “For one to win, another must lose.” Kennedy’s optimistic message of making the pie bigger, rather than fighting over the slices, is not one that Democrats have always highlighted. (It used to be a conservative mantra.) He continued, “We are bombarded with one false choice after another. Coal miners or single moms, rural communities or inner cities. The coast or the heartland. … Here is an answer that Democrats offer tonight. We choose both.”
There was a bit too much of the check-the-box interest group call-outs and a clunky list of policy to-dos (a living wage, paid leave, affordable child care, education and health care, trade pacts) to build infrastructure). But this speech, remember, had to hit the correct notes for a primarily Democratic audience. That said, Kennedy came back repeatedly to a much-needed narrative about America:
We choose the thousands of Americans communities whose roads are not paved with power or privilege, but with an honest effort of good faith, and the results to build something better for your kids. That is our story. It began the day our Founding Fathers and mothers set sail for a new world fleeing oppression and intolerance. It continued with every word of our independence, the audacity to declare that all men are created equal. An imperfect promise for a nation struggling to become a more perfect union.
That is precisely how all politicians should talk and what is entirely missing — even scorned — in the Trump GOP. Are we going to be a credal nation (“We hold these truths … ”) or a nation that is defined as white and Christian? The GOP has adopted the latter, which contradicts the former and betrays decades of conservative rhetoric.
Kennedy vowed to protect the “dreamers,” whom he placed in a continuum with suffragettes and Freedom Riders. But he ended with a tribute to what Trump would have called “the forgotten man and woman”:
You battle your own quiet battles every single day. You drag your weary bodies to that extra shift so that your families will not feel the sting of scarcity. You leave loved ones at home to defend our country overseas, patrol our neighborhoods at night. You serve, you rescue, you help, you heal. That, more than any law or leader, debate or disagreement, that is what drives us towards progress.
He smartly posed Trump not as the embodiment of the popular will (as autocrats commonly do) but as a “bully” — who will “land a blow and leave a mark” but cannot “match the strength and spirit of the people united in defense of their future.” He closed with: “Out of many, one. Ladies and gentlemen, have faith. Have faith. The state of our union is hopeful, resilient and enduring.” Again, this — E pluribus unum — was not the normal rhetoric that we heard from decades of Democratic identity politics. If this marks a turn to a more inclusive message, one of shared values and not separate traits, Democrats and the country will be the better for it.