The response is one of the worst jobs in American politics. The State of the Union is one of our nation's grandest shared rituals. The president stands in the center of the House chamber, surrounded by congressmen, senators, diplomats, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials. Heroes sit with his spouse and await his acknowledgment. No matter the quality of the man, and no matter the scandals he grapples with on other days, for that night, he is cloaked in all the majesty and tradition of the office.
The response always pales in comparison. Working in former speaker John A.Boehner's office, I helped select and prepare seven Republican responses to President Barack Obama. They ranged from an unmitigated disaster (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's infamous performance in Baton Rouge ), to a mitigated disaster (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's desperate, on-camera lunge for a water bottle marred a good, if overlong, address ), to adequate but unmemorable (Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Reps. Paul D. Ryan and Cathy McMorris Rodgers ), to above average (Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst ).
None made the slightest lasting impression. The misfires were remembered far longer than the bull's eyes.
The selection of the responder is up to the party leaders in the House and Senate. Surprisingly, the party committees have no role (though we always consulted the RNC during the process). Kennedy, then, was picked by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the minority leader, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the House Democratic leader. This year, two logistical factors make the choice particularly difficult: These days, potential presidential candidates do not give the response, since it would give them an unfair advantage over their rivals (Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine grabbed front-runner status for the 1972 Democratic primary, in part, due to a powerful response to a speech by President Nixon), and the decimation of down-ballot Democrats under Obama means that there are fewer elected officials to choose from.
The bigger problem, though, is that the Democratic Party is adrift, riven by factions, bereft of forward-looking solutions and desperately hoping that unbridled opposition to President Trump will be enough to carry it to victory in the midterms and beyond.
And, so, two Washington Democrats, with an average age of 72, hailing from the bluest parts of the bluest states in the Union, have selected the scion of their childhood hero's family to represent the party this year. This is not a choice that looks to the future of America, or the Democratic Party.
Memories of President John F. Kennedy's term in office — a time when Democrats did represent working-class dreams and aspirations — are faded. A 10-year old child who witnessed Kennedy's assassination in 1963 is now 65 years old. Around half of all U.S. voters are under the age of 45. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's years as a legislative workhorse and his deathbed battle to pass the Affordable Care Act are well remembered and well regarded on Capitol Hill, but the broader public also associates the Kennedy family with the prior decades of scandals and mishaps.
To be successful, Democrats will need voters who are young, multiethnic, working-class, and living in swing districts. Schumer and Pelosi have chosen a white son of privilege from the most famously liberal state in America. Deeply dissatisfied voters today reject political dynasties (as my old boss, Jeb Bush, found out in 2016) and loathe Washington insiders. But Kennedy brings no qualifications beyond his gilded pedigree and status as an elected official in Washington. He is a terrible choice to be the face of the Democratic Party Tuesday night.
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