The overheated media circus that is the annual State of the Union address isn’t one of those solemn traditions perverted by our current reality-show existence; rather, the whole affair has, for over a century now, been a largely cosmetic exercise in partisan bravado from both the president and the opposing party. Sweeping policies are confidently aired before they can hit the wall of political reality, and much of the speech ends up trafficking in platitudes that are only a marginal reflection of overall strategy.
Tuesday night’s State of the Union was no different — Donald Trump hammered mostly themes of immigration (bad), economic strengthening (good), trade deals (fair), and unity (far-fetched) during an eighty-minute address (third longest, with numbers one and two unsurprisingly held by Bill Clinton) — with the main innovation being that the traditional opposing-party rebuttal has multiplied.
In addition to the standard party up-and-comer Democratic response from Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy III (yes, those Kennedys), there was an official Spanish-language response from newly elected Virginia delegate Elizabeth Guzmán, plus three unofficial responses: Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and former Maryland representative Donna Edwards, the latter speaking on behalf of the Working Families Party, with California representative Maxine Waters set to follow tonight on BET. As the nation eagerly awaits to see whether a Democratic wave can hit statehouses and Washington, D.C., this fall, the responses offer some clue as to what progressives inside and outside the party mainstream are planning as an alternative to Trumpism.
Like some of his boldfaced forebears, Kennedy delivered his speech in a halting cadence that lends itself well to heartfelt, soaring rhetoric. With his speech clocking in at about thirteen minutes, Kennedy seemed eager to connect to his listeners emotionally, noting early on that “many have spent the last year anxious, angry, afraid,” followed by a series of single-phrase despondent descriptions of the past year, such as “bullets tearing through our classrooms, concerts, and congregations.” His voice sometimes barely rising above a whisper, Kennedy explained that this isn’t a normal State of the Union response because this hasn’t been a normal year, or presidency, saying, “This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us, they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”
Much of the speech was dedicated to the idea that the administration has created a “zero-sum game” that pits different kinds of Americans against one another. To this new era of extreme polarization and political tribalism, the Democratic answer is, apparently, simple: The Democrats “choose both.” Everyone wins, both corporations and workers, coal miners and single moms.
Kennedy closed out his speech by saying that “politicians can be cheered for the promises they make. Our country will be judged by the promises we keep.” The problem is, it’s not entirely clear which promises he’s committed to beyond some broad-strokes understandings. It’s important to have an “economy strong enough to boast record stock prices and brave enough to admit that top CEOs making 300 times their average worker is not right”? All right. So what are the Democrats going to do about it? Raise income taxes? Close the capital gains loophole? Nationalize every company and force the former CEOs to work the factory floor? It’s not clear.
Unsurprisingly, Guzmán rooted her ten-minute response firmly in her own experiences as an immigrant elected during Virginia’s 2017 Democratic wave. As an avatar for the future of the party, the Peruvian American who started off as a poor single mom is a more natural fit than the white, male scion of a dynastic family, and she was comfortable in the role. “My experiences have been a testament to the incredible promise of this nation,” she said.
Yet this promise was the backdrop for a speech that amplified the darker themes touched on in Kennedy’s speech, with a greater tone of urgency and a sense of imminent danger to the American dream she had lived. “[Trump] threatens to drag our nation back to a shameful past, one in which our people were judged not by the quality of their character, but by the color of their skin and by their religious beliefs,” she said, accusing the president of “neglected our most fundamental American values.” Faced with the “presence of patriotic Dreamers” — many Democratic lawmakers invited undocumented immigrants to be their guests of honor — she said, Trump “presented his plan, which would fundamentally change the character of our country.”
The overall theme of Guzmán’s speech was one of looming regression, as the Trump administration tries to return to a time not only of open xenophobia and racial animus, but of robber barons and sharp inequality. She described how he “named a cabinet of multimillionaires who are only worried about using their posts to help the wealthy” and “mortgaged the future of our children” with a Republican tax scam. She ended in a more hopeful tenor, outlining a vague plan by Democrats to create “an additional 10 million high-paying, full-time jobs” for American workers, and exhorting her fellow Democrats to organize, protest, vote, and run for office to produce leaders “with stories like mine.” Mostly, though, the speech landed more as a stark warning about the current direction of the union than a road map for improving it.
As expected, Bernie played all the hits for the fans at home. In a twenty-five-minute address delivered over social media — including a couple of minutes of technical issues during which the broadcast was interrupted — the senatorial socialist railed against wealth inequality and a collapsing social safety net in his characteristic Brooklyn-accented rasp. He pointed out that Trump had touted strong economic numbers during the State of the Union, but that these referred to the stock market and general unemployment rather than the pace of job creation, which had fallen, and wages, which hadn’t increased: “The rich continue to get much richer while millions of American workers are working two or three jobs just to keep their heads above water.”
Like Guzmán, Sanders responded directly to Trump’s words and actions, although in a much more freewheeling manner that seemed at least partially improvised. He fixated on the contrast between Trump’s past statements and his actions, saying he promised “health insurance for everybody with ‘much lower deductibles.’ That is what he promised.… But…he did exactly the opposite”; Sanders also threw a jab at his Republican counterparts, observing that “colleagues standing up and applauding how great it is that millions of Americans are going to lose their health insurance [is] not quite something that I understand.”
Sanders also targeted the Republican tax plan and Trump’s cabinet of “Wall Street billionaires.” As for the Trump administration’s immigration agenda, Sanders called the protection of Dreamers “one of the great moral issues facing our country” and said that a failure to act would be “unspeakable and a moral stain.” In addition, Sanders dedicated a good chunk of time to the things he felt Trump didn’t talk about, including climate change (“No, Mr. Trump, climate change is not a ‘hoax’ ”), campaign finance (“How can a president of the United States in the year 2018 not discuss the disastrous Citizens United?”), and Russian interference in elections (“How do you not talk about that, unless, perhaps, you have a very special relationship with Mr. Putin?”). He then switched gears to his oft-promised political revolution, with the administration’s sins prompting “a revitalization of American democracy with more and more people standing up and fighting back.” In all, it was a classic Bernie speech, red meat that will be read by fans as speaking refreshing truth to power, and by detractors as tired, useless proselytizing.
This was the response that hewed closest to a personal campaign speech, with Edwards introducing herself by making clear that she’s running for county executive in Maryland’s Prince George’s County. The Working Families Party’s purpose, in part, is to drag the Democratic Party, kicking and screaming, to the left, and her roughly twelve-minute address showcased that objective.
Much of Edwards’s speech came across as a less restrained Democratic response, leading with how the administration is “run by and for billionaires and promoting racist policies targeting people of color” and helmed by a man intent on “upending the rule of law, destroying institutions, and engaging in an unprecedented purge of the Department of Justice as special counsel Mueller closes in on him.” Edwards then cycled through a list of terrible decisions that the “bought-and-paid-for puppets in government” had made, including the tax plan, failure to fund the CHIP health program for over a hundred days, and the termination of DACA, while pitching the WFP’s ground organizing as a solution. “All across the nation, in communities and neighborhoods just like mine in Prince George’s County, the spirit of grassroots resistance and civic renewal burns bright,” she said, and pointed to victories like the election of Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner.
This was paired with dire admonitions about the Republicans’ future plans, such as using the ballooning deficit that their own tax plan created to “deliver so-called entitlement reform by any means necessary, [which] would fulfill a longtime dream of the far-right,” and handing infrastructure projects to “Wall Street banks and foreign investors.” Edwards also tied in her own experience, particularly her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a condition that can be extremely expensive without adequate health insurance. She wrapped up by outlining some WFP priorities, including universal healthcare, public financing for elections, policing of corporate crime, and a transition to a clean-energy economy, making it arguably the most specifics-heavy of the response speeches.
Elizabeth Guzmán’s powerful personal history, grave, concise delivery, and crisp admonitions about the changing face of the nation made hers the best response speech of the night. As Democrats ponder their strategy for the midterms — a golden opportunity that, if recent national party strategy is any indication, they’re moderately likely to horribly bungle — one of the thorniest conversations will involve to what extent they should pretend this is a normal election and we haven’t utterly gone through the looking glass. Guzmán’s honesty about the existential repercussions of our current political moment could provide a powerful argument in favor of a more clear-eyed and forceful approach.