On Jan. 30, President Trump gave his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. It was followed by the Democratic rebuttal given by Congressman Joe Kennedy III. Read more to find out why Ansley Skipper thinks Kennedy was the wrong person to deliver the party’s response.
Almost 50 years after his grandfather, Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s, assassination, Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) was chosen to give the featured Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union (SOTU). Those given this responsibility usually either find stardom within their party or are ruthlessly mocked for one superficial aspect of their speech. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) gave the Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s SOTU in 2013 and was grilled for his sweating and pausing for a drink of water.
Selections for a party’s speaker are usually based on the message that the president and the opposition party each want to convey, both in shaping policy and in preparing for the next election cycle. When the Affordable Care Act was at the forefront of political discussions in 2009, Republicans picked a doctor (and congressman) to deliver a response to President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress. However, this year Kennedy’s speech had no clear political message, nor was its tone completely different from President Trump’s.
The voter base for Democrats in recent history has been, largely, socially progressive racial and religious minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, women, young people, and fiscally progressive blue-collar whites; however, in 2016, Donald Trump won over those blue-collar voters with his populist fiscal message, and this loss to the Democratic Party did not go unacknowledged in Kennedy’s rebuttal. In fact, Kennedy, a multi-millionaire from a political dynasty, was, ironically, placed in a vocational school in Falls River, Massachusetts, an industrial town, complete with a Ford on a car lift in the background.
Nevertheless, Kennedy attempted to incorporate all members of his party by saying that it is the party for everyone: “Coal miners or single moms. Rural communities or inner cities. The coast or the heartland.”
Kennedy spoke to some traditional Democratic demographics by speaking Spanish when discussing DACA and immigration in general and touching on the Democrats’ social stances — gay rights, pay equity, and healthcare, to name a few. Kennedy said that the Trump Administration believes that human dignity is not a natural right but is measured by “…the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The color of your skin. The God of your prayers.”
The 24th richest elected official also appealed to working class voters with economic rhetoric defending the worker and attacking the CEO. “We choose an economy strong enough to boast record stock prices and brave enough to admit that top CEOs making 300 times the average worker is not right,” Kennedy says.
In a political climate of anti-establishment sentiment and frustration with politicians, a fifth generation politician was chosen to represent a party in opposition to the ultimate outsider, President Trump.
However, despite some abrasive rhetoric and Kennedy’s best attempts at attacking the Trump Administration, the basic tone of the speech was stunningly similar to that of the President’s. Both men discussed veterans, workers, and the treatment all Americans deserve. Both highlighted ordinary Americans and their everyday heroism. The President brought specific individuals to his address, while Kennedy gave more generalized examples.
Kennedy said, “You serve. You rescue. You help. You heal. That – more than any law or leader, any debate or disagreement – that is what drives us toward progress.”
President Trump made a similar point, saying “Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans … So let us begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our Union is strong because our people are strong.”
As is typical of States of the Union and their rebuttals, each man seemed to place blame on the other’s party for failure and take credit for their party for national progress. Certainly, some points in each speech were in opposition to each other (immigration and entitlements notably), but the two parties did not seem as far apart on policy as they might want voters to believe.
The Hill writers Reid Wilson and Amie Parnes interviewed many Democratic leaders and strategists and found that “[some Democrats] want[ed] to show off a female voice, at the height of the "Me Too" movement.” While Kennedy did touch on those issues, the statement may have come more powerfully from a woman, whether one in politics or otherwise, especially considering the accusations of sexual misconduct surrounding President Trump.
As an outsider looking in, it is easy for me to question whether Kennedy truly represents the Democratic Party. In my eyes, Kennedy’s representation of the Democratic Party would paint it as a party of northern, white, educated elites. I’m sure that some would say that the Republican Party could be seen the same way, and they might be right. As far as I can tell, the Democratic Party represents a diverse base with different issues that Kennedy can’t represent. He is simply not the right person to deliver the message that everyday Americans – especially Democrats – want to hear. Ultimately, coming from a person of Kennedy’s background and status, the Democrats’ message feels disingenuous. I, for one, can’t help but see the irony and hypocrisy in the Democrats’ choice of Kennedy to give their party’s response to the State of the Union. Kennedy’s speech shows me how out-of-touch the Democratic Party is, particularly post 2016. Certainly, some of Kennedy’s language was what the Democratic base wanted to hear, but I think it’s more important to consider who delivered that language, a Stanford and Harvard alumnus with a net worth of $44 million who has only ever worked in politics.
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Read Rep. Kennedy’s speech here and President Trump’s here.