Was Chelsea Clinton unavailable? Maybe she’s just smarter. Tonight, the Democrats will offer their official response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, an honor from the opposition party which has a reputation for being a millstone around the neck of otherwise promising political careers. This year, Democrats want to position themselves as the Vox Populi in the era of Trumpian excess by, er … choosing the latest edition of the Kennedy dynasty as their public face.
What could go wrong?
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.
In other words, Kennedy’s only distinction from everyone else in the House Democratic caucus is his last name. He’s in his third term in the House, too, which makes this resumé seem a bit … thin, especially for a Kennedy. The fact that he’s “not so well-known” outside his district and DC speaks volumes about his “efficacy,” and about why he’s getting the nod for the SOTU response. Kennedy’s one of the insiders and doesn’t have too much baggage. The hope will likely be that Kennedy won’t do any damage and that his last name will carry enough of the echoes of “Camelot” to keep from getting savaged in post-speech analyses.
Don’t expect much, my friend Robert Schlesinger suggests, even if he can pull off a good performance:
“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.”
Kennedy may or may not hold a lot of promise — if so, it’s been dormant through two-plus terms — but he’s not one of the “bright stars” of the party. Those would be Democrats that people recognize for their own accomplishments rather than a dynastic surname — people like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Tim Kaine, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and others with rumored presidential aspirations in 2020.
Why not put one of their real stars on television instead? It’s because the SOTU response is the Kobayashi Maru of national politics. There’s no way to succeed — only various degrees of failure. You can either lose Harry Reid-Nancy Pelosi style, which is to say make it to forgettable, or you can crater spectacularly and memorably as Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio did. The pomp and grandeur of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress (which is problematic on its own anyway) reduce what follows into ankle-biting at best. Democrats don’t want to risk damaging someone with actual potential, and they’re wise in that choice.
The only politician to pull a James Kirk and beat the Kobayashi Maru test was Bob McDonnell, then governor of Virginia. He changed the rules of the game by replicating the pomp and circumstance for his response to Barack Obama by delivering it from the dais of the Virginia legislature, with fellow Republicans in attendance. Unfortunately, that didn’t help McDonnell in his political career … but that had nothing to do with the SOTU response.
Kennedy might not have to worry too much about getting steamrolled by this “honor.” Other Democrat lawmakers plan to offer their own responses to Trump tonight:
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts will offer the official Democratic response. Kennedy is the great nephew of the John F. Kennedy and the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, NPR reports. Elizabeth Guzman, newly elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, will deliver the Spanish-language response. An immigrant from Peru, Guzman is the first Hispanic women elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates.
The Resistance will also Feel the Bern:
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is planning to offer his own response to President Trump’s first State of the Union speech Tuesday evening.
Sanders — an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats — will deliver his speech via social media shortly after Trump’s address, according to his office.
And just in case people started taking Hollywood seriously again, several celebrities will gather to offer “The People’s State of the Union,” because they apparently don’t have enough time in their weeks-long awards show season to lecture America. If Kennedy’s lucky, though, they’ll provide enough distraction to allow him to aspire to forgettability.