Kennedy's speech highlights the Democratic leadership crisisBy Jack Kitchin | 02/02/2018 2:18am
Tuesday night President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address. In what was perhaps the most eloquent and focused speech he has given since his decision to seek the Oval Office, President Trump made both his successes and his plans for future policymaking clear to Congress and to the nation. He took up the leadership of the Republican Party and provided the members of his party with a sense of direction going into the midterm elections.
In his remarks, President Trump laid out the accomplishments of his administration’s first year. These achievements came in the form of the movement of our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, reducing unemployment, and the largest tax cuts since those of the Reagan Administration. He also outlined his plans for immigration reform and for the rebuilding of our nation’s infrastructure.
In a desperate need for a voice for the party, the Democrats chose a young congressional representative from Massachusetts to speak on their behalf. Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, grandson of U.S. Attorney General and Senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, was tapped to deliver the Democratic response to the President’s address. After the announcement was made, many were excited to see the young Congressman make his national debut.
When the name Kennedy is invoked, it carries with it a certain gravitas. Americans associate it with leadership and dedication to public service. In a way, the Kennedy family is American royalty; a political dynasty that gives us hope for a better future. At least that’s the way it used to be. While President Trump’s address was perhaps the best of his presidency, Joe Kennedy’s speech was incredibly underwhelming, given that he is a man whose uncles and grandfather were able to turn phrases that have cemented their place in American history.
Content and political opinions aside, the young Kennedy’s skills as a public speaker were lacking. His nervousness was on full display as he gasped for air between his remarks, which were delivered in a soft and quivering voice. I found myself, as did many viewers, unimpressed at this performance by a member of the most powerful political family America has ever known.
Beyond the anticlimactic speech of Congressman Kennedy lies a larger issue facing the Democratic Party. An issue in the form of a leadership crisis. Why else would the Democrats give Joe Kennedy this opportunity rather than one of their 2020 presidential hopefuls? The answer is simple. The Democrats have no strong leadership.
Former President Obama was a formidable and effective leader for the Democratic Party, but left no true successor. The last of the Clinton political capital was spent on Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 bid for the White House. Senator Bernie Sanders’ policy ideas are far too radical to make him a contender for the role.
In Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer lead the Democrats in their respective roles as House and Senate minority leaders. Both are career politicians that have been in Congress longer than some of their constituents have been alive. Needless to say, there are serious roadblocks to their ability to reach a new generation of Democratic voters.
Unfortunately, they chose the State of the Union as an appropriate time to fall back on old habits. The Democrats fell back on a name they believed would conjure up memories of Camelot. But this time, not even the Kennedy name could come to the rescue. Congressman Kennedy failed to seize the moment, and what was supposed to be the introduction of the new face of the Democratic Party was instead added to the pile of failed attempts to replace Barack Obama.
The fact of the matter is that it is vital for the Democrats find a voice amongst themselves should they hope to mount a challenge to the Republican control of Congress in the upcoming midterms. President Trump’s address laid out a platform for GOP candidates and provided them with ammunition to conduct their campaigns. In order to give their candidates a chance to succeed, the Democrats need a similar unifying message that goes deeper than hatred for an outsider and a trendsetter to deliver it.
President John F. Kennedy once said, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” As it stands now, the Democratic Party has neither purpose, nor direction. Their vitality was lost with the election of Donald Trump as president, and since then they have become a party of opposition rather than proposition. Without a rapid reorganization within the party, it is this columnist’s opinion that the Democrats will have a hard time retaking control of Congress any time soon.
Jack Kitchin is a sophomore majoring in political science. His column runs biweekly.