Led by Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), at least eight current and former Democratic legislators took on one of the stiffest challenges in politics: responding to a State of the Union address in a time of strong economic growth.
Kennedy spoke from a technical school in his coastal Massachusetts district, facing a small crowd, framed by an antique car. His colleagues, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), spread out across TV studios and press clubs to deliver a message that, perhaps, some of the president's critics would hear.
For Kennedy, that message was that President Trump and Republicans had offered "one false choice after another" to Americans, "turning American life into a zero-sum game" in which the wealthiest score the most wins.
"Coal miners or single moms. Rural communities or inner cities. The coast or the heartland," Kennedy said. "Here is the answer Democrats offer tonight: We choose both. We fight for both. Because the strongest, richest, greatest nation in the world shouldn't leave anyone behind."
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), speaking on behalf of the moderate New Democrats, was largely in sync with Kennedy, noting that most economic indicators had been strong "for eight years" and asserting that the benefits were being delivered to a lucky few.
"The fact is that the economy still isn't good enough for too many people," Himes said. "Not everyone has opportunity to earn a good life for them and their family. And policies which put health insurance out of reach, or which deliver huge tax relief to families that can afford to pass $20 million to their children, make things worse, not better."
Sanders, who also delivered a rebuttal to Trump last year, went further by saying that the president was papering over the real problems in the economy.
"Over the last year, after adjusting for inflation, the average worker in America saw a wage increase of — are you ready for this? — four cents an hour, or 0.17 percent," he said from a studio in the Capitol. "To put it in a different way, that worker received a raise of a little more than $1.60 a week. And, as is often the case, that tiny wage increase disappeared as a result of soaring health-care costs."
In 2014, the last year the opposition party had to rebut a rosy State of the Union in a strong economy, Republicans swung a similar rhetorical club. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) warned that the facts about the post-recession economy were worse than Barack Obama let on. "The real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality," she said, invoking "neighbors who are struggling to find jobs" and "a child who drops out of college because she can't afford tuition."
The Democrats of 2018, with their own version of the "bad news" speeches, went further by attacking the president's immigration and social policies. The debate about "identity politics" that briefly distracted Democrats after 2016 was long forgotten, as Democrats in the Capitol brought immigrants as their special guests, and Virginia state Del. Elizabeth Guzman warned that Trump threatened "to drag our nation back to a shameful past."
"Immigrant families — who have given new life to the American Dream through their arduous work and trust in American values — are facing uncertainty, anxiety and terror under President Trump," Guzman said. "He has replaced equality with intolerance, replaced mutual respect with racism."
The litany grew at the "State of Our Union," an event at the National Press Club that was a gathering of progressive organizations including Planned Parenthood, Moms Rising and the Women's March. Three House Democrats, who boycotted the presidential address, shared a stage with activists as they promised to keep standing up to Trump.
"I am proud to be an immigrant," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). "We are going to fight for the diversity that makes our country great."
On Facebook, former Maryland congresswoman Donna F. Edwards delivered a speech on behalf of the left-wing Working Families Party. She offered the night's lengthiest policy agenda, calling on Democrats to "make elections at every level publicly financed" and "cut the cord with developers, banks, Big Pharma, oil and gas companies, and all the interests that control public policy in states, cities, counties and Congress."
Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, Kennedy was aligning his party as strongly as ever with the protest movements that emerged before and after Trump took office.
"You proudly marched together last weekend — thousands deep — in the streets of Las Vegas and Philadelphia and Nashville," Kennedy said. "You bravely say, me too. You steadfastly say, black lives matter."