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Why Dems’ choice for the ‘State of the Union’ response shows they just don’t get it
Joe Kennedy shouldn’t be giving this speech.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will appear before Congress for his first State of the Union address. Democrats will answer with remarks delivered by a young Massachusetts congressman—a messenger that has some eyebrows raising and a few political junkies scratching their heads.
The young Massachusetts congressman isn’t just any junior lawmaker; Joe Kennedy III is the latest legislator in America’s most storied political dynasty. And while Kennedy has mostly lingered on the fringes of politics since assuming office in 2012, the rebuttal will thrust the 37-year-old into the spotlight.
And everyone wants to know why.
The State of the Union rebuttal is an excellent chance for the minority party to outline their values and their platform. With the 2018 elections approaching, it seems that the obvious choice for Democrats would be to push a message and tap a messenger best able to highlight those values. To be fair, it’s probably true that only political geeks (like us) will be tuning into Kennedy’s remarks, but we can also expect that any points he hits could play a major role in the news cycle in the following week.
In the current political landscape, women and minorities have the microphone. Their influence was exhibited in the DACA debate and the #MeToo movement–so it’s only logical to push a profile that resonates in both those communities. Somebody like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) or even Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). A lawmaker with a voice that says I hear you before she even begins to speak. In announcing Kennedy’s upcoming remarks, Nancy Pelosi released a statement saying “While President Trump has consistently broken his promises to the middle class, Congressman Kennedy profoundly understands the challenges facing hard-working men and women across the country.” While the youthful congressman seems to be a genuinely good person, it’s hard to imagine a Kennedy understanding the challenges facing hard-working men and women across the country.
To their credit, the Democrats have a backup plan: Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). BuzzFeed reported that the California lawmaker will appear on BET to deliver remarks following Trump’s State of the Union. In fact, Waters’ airtime is part of a larger program anchored by Democratic strategist Angela Rye aimed at getting minorities out to the ballot boxes. And the Democrats really need to realize that African-American voters and women have been influential in the latest elections. In Alabama, CNN’s exit polling showed that African-Americans represented 29 percent of the electorate and 96 percent of them voted for Doug Jones. To be blunt, Doug Jones would not be sitting in the U.S. Senate if it weren’t for black voters.
It feels like picking Kennedy to deliver the rebuttal suggests that the Democrats are out of ideas. Do they really need another dynasty? Do they really want it? That problem sounds a lot like their decision to give Hillary Clinton the nod in 2016. The DNC had an abysmal fundraising year in 2017. While big-wig donors are still happy to pump money into the establishment’s coffer, outside groups and grassroots movements have enjoyed donations that might have previously gone to the governing body. If Kennedy is successful, it will be in unifying the progressive branch of the party with the old guard. But that’s a tough task for a young congressman. Even if his last name is Kennedy.
In fairness, Kennedy is a rising star in the Democratic party but he doesn’t seem ready or eager for the spotlight. And it’s hard to imagine surveying the socio-political landscape and concluding that Democrats, in search of a messenger, should push a remarkably attractive, privileged white New Englander who almost certainly isn’t a face that will harness votes in the current atmosphere. It seems like another decision that favors the old guard and indicates that the party leaders didn’t learn their lesson in 2016.
Alex Thomas is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.