This year’s opposition response to the State of the Union address has two elements to lift it from its status as a star-crossed, sometimes futile exercise: One, the president’s name is Donald Trump; two, the responder is named Kennedy.
Tuesday night’s story is, rightly, about President Trump. Aside from times of crisis, the State of the Union is an unmatched opportunity “for the President to showcase his … arsenal of constitutional powers,” the scholars at the Congressional Research Service reminded us in a 2015 white paper.
Trump’s gracelessness with substantive issues and his penchant for fibs, dodges and reversals will devalue the State of the Union address’ traditional shopping list of goals and deprive the speech of much of its customary usefulness as an organizing tool for administration policy. But he has the requisite performing skills to seize the moment, and the nationally broadcast speech has been a fat pitch down the middle for his predecessors since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the advent of electronic media. We may be inured to the SOTU’s charms (Quick: Name one substantive takeaway from an address given by George W. Bush or Barack Obama), but any provocative statement by Trump will generate the requisite Twitter storms and spasmodic replays on cable television.
But for the party on the outs, the official response’s status as an afterthought—limited in time and watched by but a small sliver of the massive audience the preceding speech receives—limits its capacity to make much of a splash. It is no easy gig. In recent years, “the response” has earned the reputation among political doyens as an ill-starred opportunity—as likely to quench a promising career as to serve as an accelerant.
Representative Joe Kennedy III is not so well-known. He is regarded both in Massachusetts and on Capitol Hill as an earnest and talented young man who, from all outward appearances, has walked through the minefields of political life toting that famous name without forfeiting efficacy, rectitude or idealism.
In a handful of mostly choreographed moments, Kennedy has starred on Facebook and YouTube, rousing “the resistance” on issues like health care, civil rights and liberties and economic justice. He has not been afraid to call out Trump or Speaker Paul Ryan. (“Wow. This is a Kennedy who could be president. A must-watch,” tweeted former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean after millions viewed Kennedy’s assault on Ryan last March.)
But while Kennedy has emerged as a modest sensation on the web, he has not yet commanded a national platform with as much at stake as the one he will be offered on Tuesday night.
“Kennedy is definitely one of the bright stars in the party, and will probably do as well with this opportunity as one can,” says Robert Schlesinger, the author of White House Ghosts, a history of presidential speechwriting. But given the limitations of the form, that is “still not very much.”
Then-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was expected to demonstrate his presidential chops when he gave the Republican response in 2009, but bombed. Florida Senator Marco Rubio recovered from a very human case of cottonmouth in 2013 to run a credible race for president three years later—but was mocked by that contest’s victor, Trump, for infamously pausing to swig a sip of water during the response. (It was karma, for sure, when Trump’s own case of dry mouth forced him to fumble for a gulp of bottled water last year. “Needs work on his form,” Rubio tweeted.)
The first official response to a president’s State of the Union message in the modern era occurred in 1966, after President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, the Republican from Illinois, joined House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, of Michigan, with televised replies that were broadcast five days later.
The GOP leaders were dissatisfied with the results. In 1967, Dirksen and Ford tried a SOTU response in the form of a televised news conference. In 1968, eight Republican senators and nine Republican representatives joined in a round-robin rebuttal. For close to 20 years, the parties flailed around, posing up to a dozen rebutters in a variety of formats that included call-in shows; interviews by panels of news reporters; and a memorable 1985 focus group segment moderated by Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas.
The experiments stopped soon after, with the party’s congressional leaders shouldering the duty for decades. In recent years, the most notable innovation has been the inclusion of upcoming young political stars, like Kennedy, with potential demographic or regional appeal.
If few have triumphed, most have dodged Jindal’s fate. There was nothing wrong in the workmanlike performances given by former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear for the Democrats after Trump’s national address to Congress in 2017, or by Republicans Sen. Joni Ernst in 2015 and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2014. And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did herself some good with a winning response to Obama in 2016, and now cuts a national wake as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Kennedy is a third-term Democrat. He is 37, a twin, Stanford-educated, with a law degree from Harvard that he put to use as a prosecutor before running for Congress. He is fluent in Spanish, from a stint in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. He is wealthy, abstemious (How many college lacrosse players, The Boston Globe has wisely asked, become known as “the milkman” because they decline to drink?), and recently missed a vote against the Republican tax bill to be with his wife as she gave birth to their second child. His smile, voice and earnest manner bring to mind the late movie actor Christopher Reeve.
His speaking style is his own. Kennedy’s grandfather—the former attorney general, senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy—and his two great-uncles, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, sought to soar when challenging their audiences. The congressman, however, has a downward inflection as he finishes each thought. Like his father, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, there is something of a seething edge, a sense of bridled emotion, in Kennedy’s best speeches. But he is no table-thumper; he reins his passion, like the district attorney he once was.
But the Kennedy name raises expectations. President Kennedy ranks high in the ratings of chief executives compiled by American historians, in large part due to his ability to challenge and inspire with speeches like his inaugural address and his appeals to the nation on foreign policy and civil rights. Anthologies of great American speeches invariably contain Robert Kennedy’s extemporaneous remarks from the night in 1968 that Martin Luther King was murdered. The family’s vaunted history also includes Robert Kennedy’s “Ripple of Hope” speech, given in South Africa in 1966, as well as Edward Kennedy’s eulogy at Robert Kennedy’s 1968 funeral, and “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1980.
Tuesday’s appearance won’t give the young Kennedy much of an opportunity to match his famous kin with lofty principles and political poetry. He’ll be sailing notably tricky waters.
The formula for the opposition response is as molded and time-tested as the rituals in the House chamber that proceed it, the scholars at the Congressional Research Service have determined. The speeches “routinely” contain 1) a call for bipartisan cooperation, 2) the promotion of one’s party agenda, and 3) a judgmental reply to the president. The elements of the formula are, to some extent, contradictory. The severity of the critique can mar an appeal for bipartisan cooperation.
In a midterm election year, with a Democratic base that loathes Donald Trump and has raised opposition to the status of jihad, Kennedy may choose to scrimp on constructive engagement and go right at the administration and its agenda. The tougher he is on Trump, the fiercer he defends the Dreamer immigrants, the more mentions he will garner in the press and social media for himself and for his party. The base will be happy.
Yet this is Kennedy’s national debut, with a potentially persuadable countrywide audience that includes independents, conservative Democrats and others dissatisfied with the president. Kennedy does not want to come across as screechy, vulgar or divisive; he does not need (as Speaker Nancy Pelosi did this month) to match the president’s talk about “shitholes” with references to dog waste sundaes.
Kennedy can’t rightly abandon his outspoken support for the Dreamers and other vulnerable immigrants, for women fighting sexual harassment, or for minorities insisting that their lives matter. But nor can he forget the interests of white working-class families, many of whom deserted the Democrats in 2016, caught in the squeeze of globalization, their communities torn by opioid addiction. He must endeavor to bridge the divide as his grandfather did, running for president 50 years ago, and try to persuade viewers that the way out of our current state of polarized, stunted politics is via a return to the finer American principles of justice, empathy, community and fairness.
The challenge is not unique to Kennedy. Democrats will face it in the fall, and again in the next presidential election. They, and others, will look to a young Kennedy on Tuesday, to see whether he has found a way.
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