Joe Kennedy Avoided the SOTU Rebuttal Curse, but Let’s Calm the Presidential Chatter

Visit any progressive blog today or the social media platforms of your Democratic friends, and you’ll probably notice many of them gushing about Joe Kennedy III’s rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address last night. Kennedy largely avoided the SOTU curse that so many others have fallen into. Remember former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s rebuttal to Barack Obama? I don’t remember anything about the content, but I do remember his sweater and the number of times he was compared to Mr. Rogers. I also remember the excessive water sipping by Sen. Marco Rubio a few years ago.

Speaking at Fall River, MA, Rep. Kennedy was generally confident and poised. He also drew a sharp contrast between the United States depicted in Trump’s speech and the actual effects of some of his policies. Here are some lines from the speech that drew that stood out to me:

“Many have spent the last year angry, anxious, afraid… we see an economy that has made stocks soar, but failed workers.”

“This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us, they’re targeting the very idea of the laws that protect us.”

“Turning American life into a zero sum game where for one to win, another must lose…. a long list of false choices — five up safety net for safety. Dreamers or poor kids. Coal miners or single moms. The answer that Democrats offer — we choose both. We fight for both. The greatest strongest nation in the world should not have to live anyone behind.” Support for child care, living wage, education, infrastructure, health care.”

In general, the speech was strong enough to appeal to the base and maybe some independents, too. This is especially important heading into the fall 2018 elections, when the Dems will have to get out their base, which traditionally stays home during mid-term elections.

If I have one main critique of the speech, it is this: what are the Democrats offering other than being anti-Trump? Kennedy didn’t pitch anything bold, such as universal health care or even something less risky like a higher federal minimum wage or paid maternity leave. All of these, including Medicare for all, generally poll quite well and they are part of the Democratic Party’s platform, but they were absent from that speech last night.

I do think 2018 will be a good year for the Democrats. Right now, the momentum is on their side. The base is fired up. They keep winning state-wide elections that they shouldn’t be winning, including in deep red states, and math and history is on their side to win back the House in November.

With that said, the Democratic Party needs to offer a clear platform and policy proposals when the 2020 race gets closer. I am not convinced that being anti-Trump is going to be enough. I’m also not convinced that a 30-something with the Kennedy name is enough to challenge Trump, who will go as low as he needs to to win re-election, if he even decides to run again.

Kennedy’s speech was good. It drew a sharp contrast between Trump’s words and the reality that some Americans are living in, Americans who still haven’t seen their wages rise, or DREAMERs who have been here since they were children and now fear deportation. Kennedy’s speech reached out to them, especially when he promised that the Dems would fight for DREAMERs. Lets hope so because the GOP won’t, at least not without insane immigration demands. However, I would like to see him serve a few more terms in the House and perhaps get bumped into a leadership position to raise his profile more before he’s seen on any type of presidential ticket.

 

So what next?

I am writing this post a few hours before the third and final presidential debate. I watched the other debates at watch parties, surrounded by friends and other volunteers. Being around them made it easier to watch. It is likely that this debate will be the nastiest yet. Clinton is ahead in most of the swing states, and over the last two weeks or so, Trump has unveiled a new strategy: claim the election is going to be rigged. To their credit, a lot of mainstream Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have pushed back against such claims. Trump’s claims are dangerous because they dig at the fabric of our democracy and the voting process in general. Voting should be seen as sacred, but knowing he is probably going to lose, and possibly lose big, Trump is now trying to undercut the legitimacy of our election. We have never seen anything like this in past elections.

It is now possible that the Democrats can win back the Senate and the House. The Clinton campaign is pushing into red states and now spending money in AZ, which is a virtual tie, according to latest polls, and Georgia, Texas, and Utah. It’s not likely that Clinton will win all of these states. She may not even  win any of them, but the spending could have a serious down ballot effect that benefits Democrats. Even if this turns out to be a wave election, what will the aftermath be? If Trumpism is repudiated big time at the ballot box on Nov. 8, will he go away? Will he stop having meltdowns on Twitter? Will he stop claiming the election is rigged and there is some vast conspiracy going on between the Clinton campaign and the mainstream media? Will the nastiness and xenophobic rhetoric go away, or will his supporters, who feel totally alienated by the political process, become even bolder?

I hope that the Democrats, even if they win big, take a long, hard look at what caused Trumpism in the first place. Why is it that the media mogul, or even Bernie Sanders, resonated so deeply with a chunk of the electorate? What will the Democratic Party do to address the concerns of the white working-class? This isn’t solely a U.S. issue, either. The New Yorker published a story a few weeks ago about the rise of far-right, nationalist parties in Germany, France, and Austria, caused by the Syrian refugee crisis. Here, our electorate is much broader and more diverse, so it doesn’t seem likely that Trump will win the White House. That said, his nationalist rhetoric and the concerns of his supporters need to be addressed. Clinton is going to have a massive burden to try to soothe and heal this country post-election.

My fear, however, is that the GOP may try to obstruct Democrats at every turn, like they did with Obama over the last 8 years. Already, John McCain has stated that anyone Clinton puts up for the Supreme Court will be stymied by the GOP.

Tonight, I will be watching the debate with friends and other volunteers, for the third and final time. I am ready for this election season to conclude, and I hope that Trump/Trumpism is retired to the dustbin of our history, just like McCarthy and George Wallace. The question is, what happens after election day?

Understanding the Trump Phenomenon

By now, the rest of the world must be looking at the United States, baffled that the  Republican Party is most likely going to nominate Donald Trump as its presidential nominee. After his Super Tuesday wins,  Trump has the momentum, and he is ahead in the delegate count. It is possible that Cruz or Rubio could still stop him, but that would be very, very difficult. Part of the reason Trump has had so much success and has secured so many delegates is because SO many Republicans ran for president this year, and so many of them were considered establishment candidates. First, the establishment pumped money into Jeb Bush, and then John Kasich for a brief period, and then most recently, Marco Rubio. Because the votes have been so divided among the anti-Trump, establishment contenders, it has made it impossible for one anti-Trump candidate to emerge. They are all splitting the votes.

However, Trump’s rise goes deeper than that, at serious ills facing the country, exacerbated by the Republican Party’s rhetoric over the last several years. Essentially, in the age of Obama, the GOP has made itself the anti-immigrant, very, very white party. In a time of rising economic inequality, and both political parties’ refusal to do much about it, the GOP has successfully scapegoated another group of people, primarily immigrants, turning white, working-class, Reagan Democrats against them. This idea is nothing new. In fact, African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois talked about this very tactic in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, in which he analyzed the way Southern, one percenters pitted white, Southern, working-class Americans against African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

It is no surprise then that Donald Trump first made national headlines this campaign cycle by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers” over the summer, while promising to build a wall along the border and have Mexico pay for it. This should have immediately ended his campaign, but it didn’t. The rhetoric only gained him more supporters, and since then, his hateful language continued, as he promised to ban all Muslims from entering the country and said that a Black Lives Matter protestor deserved to be “roughed up.” Meanwhile, in the last week, a Time magazine reporter was choke slammed at one of his rallies, black students were removed from a rally in GA, and on and on. His rhetoric is indeed inciting violence and worsening divisions in this country.

Only VERY recently have GOP leaders seriously started to speak out against Trump. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech denouncing Trump as a fraud and phony. Sen. John McCain said Trump would pose a danger to America’s national security, and House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized Trump’s refusal to distance himself from David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard who endorsed Trump.

Time ran one of the best editorials against Trump I have seen so far, focused on his bigotry. Perhaps the GOP bigwigs are FINALLY speaking out against Trump because his racism has become so old-fashioned and utterly apparent. The editorial states, “It’s easy to condemn Trump and Duke, and to be self-righteous in doing so. It allows us to point to the bad people over there while protecting our illusory innocence. We should have been outraged by Trump from the very beginning. But that would’ve required that we confront the ugliness in ourselves. Americans aren’t too keen on that. We prefer our illusions straight no chaser.”

Does Time magazine have a point there? Why was the David Duke incident what made GOP stalwarts like Joe Scarborough, Paul Ryan, and others finally denounce him? Why did they not do so over Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants or plans to ban Muslims from entering the country? Were those comments what much of the GOP base wanted to hear all along? Do they only condemn Trump now because he is on the verge of being racist in “the old, American way of being racist?”

Trump is  a result of the GOP’s increasing shift to the right over the years, its failure to diversify the party, and its willingness to coalesce around older, white, working-class voters. Yet, it’s important to note that these voters have legitimate gripes, namely that the system is rigged, politicians are bought, and working-class jobs are gone. However, immigrants are not to blame. Bad trade deals, like NAFTA, are to blame for shipping those working-class jobs overseas, and there, both parties are at fault. Citizens United is one of the main factors that created such an influx of corporate money into our political system.

So now, it seems, it will be up to establishment candidate Hillary Clinton to stop Trump. Clinton better think long and hard, however, about the direction of the Democratic Party. It can no longer be complicit in dealing with economic inequalities that deepen the country’s racial divides. Though she has high unfavorables, it is likely Clinton will mobilize the Latino vote and black vote in the fall,  thanks to Trump’s ascension. She will owe them if she wins the White House. A clear, progressive economic plan and a serious immigration reform bill would be a good start.  Trump’s rallies have given us a glimpse of how anyone different would be scapegoated and treated in his America. That indeed is a horrifying thought.