With every State of the Union address, the opposition party of the sitting president is tasked with the predictable and rhetorically vacant duty of delivering a response the same evening. This year, the Democratic Party chose Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy III—a young up-and-coming poster-boy for the future of the party—to deliver the official rebuttal.
The selection of Rep. Kennedy happens to make sense and elicit confusion simultaneously. As a member of a prominent political dynasty, his last name alone evokes a certain feeling the Democrats hope to return to the forefront of American thought. And while the intentions are pure, it’s another example of a cardinal error Democrats continue to make in their message. The party establishment is set on the message catering to an idealized picture of American history some voters might want to return to, but in doing so, fail to give the public a clear, attractive alternative of substance for the future other than “have you seen the other guy?”
Although Kennedy references a living wage, paid leave and affordable child care once, the response does not mention free college, an end to the war in Afghanistan, the legalization of marijuana or removing money from politics. The emotionally-charged prose was pleasing to listen to but we don’t elect leaders to serenade us. Kennedy is not running for any office at the moment, so he shouldn’t be scrutinized as such, but if his response to the State of the Union is any indication of how the Democrats plan to enter the midterms and the 2020 election, they have a long way to go. The representative attempts to paint a picture of different professions from around the country, asserting they have much more in common than they think, especially in an idealized concept of America. This is all well and good, but what Kennedy’s response lacked is a specific concrete plan of action for what the Democratic Party will do if given the chance to implement changes that would galvanize these people.
There were also issues of Kennedy saying one thing, but Democrats doing another. He specifically addressed Dreamers saying, “Ustedes son parte de nuestra historia. Vamos a luchar.” You are a part of our history. Let’s fight. However, not all Senate Democrats are fighting for Dreamers and their future continues to hang in limbo as a bipartisan deal is determined. Kennedy’s inclusion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act recipients was the right move but affected individuals need to see action and certainty that they aren’t just a talking point. Furthermore, Democrats should probably stray from “we are all Dreamers” rhetoric. While recognizing one’s own immigration history is fine, comparing family history to specific ongoing obstacles DACA recipients are experiencing invokes the same tone as “all lives matter”.
Official rebuttals to the State of the Union are not meant to draw voters to the polls, but even if the response is nothing more than the Democrat’s chance for a public relations boost, they can still do better than Joe Kennedy’s attempt. The framework for a comprehensive playbook for the party can still be found in Kennedy’s speech so the response should not be viewed as a lost cause, but it’s only a start. The individuals responsible for setting the agenda for the upcoming midterms should take care to listen to the people and deliver on something real that even the most vulnerable Americans can believe in.
– Zach is a philosophy senior