David Frank | Hamilton College
Many people - political aficionados included - were initially surprised that the Democratic Party selected Rep. Joe Kennedy III to deliver its rebuttal to President Trump’s first State of the Union Address.
The task, despite being considered cursed by some, provides a unique opportunity for minority party members. The speech is a rare chance to instantly raise one’s own profile while mounting a concise and convincing rebuttal to the President’s agenda.
Democrats tapped Kennedy - a third term Congressman from Massachusetts - rather than a more predictable selection like Cory Booker or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, either of whom would have provided a familiar face to deliver the Party’s contrasting political prognosis heading into 2018. Democrats selected Kennedy, however, because (in the view of this college Sophomore) they think he has the right combination of characteristics to counter the President’s unusual and combative political style.
Joe Kennedy III is in many ways the antithesis to Trumpian politics. He has a superlative resume (including degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Law School), a squeaky-clean image, and is an heir to perhaps the most powerful family dynasty in Democratic politics.
While President Trump claimed to want Americans to “set aside our differences” and “seek out common ground,” the State of the Union reiterated the President’s polarizing positions on contentious issues like the National Anthem, fossil fuels, North Korea, 'Dreamers,' and border security. The speech, written to appeal to a broader audience than just the President’s tried-and-true base, at times seemed more focused on storytelling and generating applause than concrete policy or promoting a cohesive agenda.
In stark contrast to the State of the Union, Rep. Kennedy’s response characterized 2017 as a year of chaos, partisanship, and false choices. Without naming the President directly, Kennedy critiqued the Trump Administration’s positions on taxes, environmental policy, and a myriad of social issues. He implored the American people to “have faith” and hold steadfast in the face of divisive leadership, ending a largely somber speech with an ultimately hopeful prognosis.
The Democratic Party entrusted the young Congressman with their 2018 platform because he is both a fresh face and a return to political convention. While the Kennedy name carries considerable clout, the young Rep. Kennedy is not a Democratic standard-bearer. Although prominent Democrats carry immediate name-recognition, those high-profile faces also garner a strong association with our largely-dysfunctional Congress and its abysmal 16.2% approval rating.
By selecting Kennedy, Democrats have now shown their chosen method to counteract the GOP heading into midterms: be everything that the President is not. The Party will try to exude youth, cohesion, and dependability. We can likely expect new faces taking on leadership roles, aggressive campaigning to weaken or overtake Republican congressional majorities, and a general shift away from grassroots populism and back toward stable, conventional politics.
Joe Kennedy III’s speech shows that Democrats want a swift return to the status quo, and they are willing to bet that the country does too.