Politics

Democrats Respond (and Respond) to Trump’s State of the Union

Handful of Democratic responses highlighted by Sanders and a Kennedy

Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III delivered the official Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s speech, but he was joined by others, unofficially. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Before an audience of students at a vocational high school in an old Massachusetts manufacturing city, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III offered the official Democratic response to the State of the Union.

But he had plenty of company in reacting to Trump on camera.

Kennedy’s speech, which was no “Dream Shall Never Die,” made a direct reference to a slogan Democrats crafted to try to appeal to working-class voters, which was rolled out last summer.

“We choose ‘A Better Deal’ for all who call this country home. We choose the living wage, paid leave and affordable child care your family needs to survive. We choose pensions that are solvent, trade pacts that are fair, roads and bridges that won’t rust away, and good education you can afford,” Kennedy said.

He decried what he called “false choices” being offered by Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“We can cut taxes for corporations today if we raise them for families tomorrow. We can take care of sick kids if we sacrifice Dreamers,” Kennedy said. “Coal miners or single moms. Rural communities or inner cities. The coast or the heartland.”

This grandson of Bobby Kennedy was not the only one coming at President Donald Trump’s address to the joint session. There were in fact a handful of official and unofficial Democratic response speeches, including new Virginia state Del. Virginia Guzman, who was asked to offer an official Spanish-language response.

Guzman sought to reassure immigrants that they are an integral part of the United States.

“Moments ago — in the presence of patriotic Dreamers in Congress — the president presented his plan, which would fundamentally change the character of our country, a plan that does not align with the visions held by our founding fathers, who viewed diversity and immigrants with pride,” Guzman said in her response. “We should not accept nor normalize the atrocious and insulting way in which this president characterizes our communities. Doing so would mean giving in to a false and dangerous narrative.”

Guzman stressed in her speech that immigrants are facing “uncertainty, anxiety and terror” under the Trump administration.

“In his first year in office, he has pushed a dark and extremist agenda that damages our national values and endangers national security. His administration 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 in the speech.

“The president has the responsibility of fostering unity, of protecting us and preventing the divisions that weaken our nation,” she said.

Before the speech, Guzman, 44, said she was honored to give the Spanish-language response to Trump’s speech and felt that she was representing a Hispanic population that has often been the target of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and immigration policies.

Guzman told Roll Call that she wanted to convey the message to the president that “he is in the White House to represent all of Americans, not just a few.”

Guzman, who immigrated to the United States from Peru, was inspired to get into politics and represent communities that have often been marginalized. Back when she was running for a seat in the House of Delegates, people constantly told her that Virginia wasn’t “ready” for someone like her.

“People told me when I was running that no one would support me because I had a thick accent,” she said.

Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California also offered an unofficial response to the presidential speech, as did former Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland. Edwards is running for county executive in Prince George’s County, and spoke on behalf of the Working Families Party.

But the most notable “unofficial” response came from a sitting senator.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who was a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, offered his own response that was more of a rebuttal to parts of the president’s remarks.

Sanders offered a long list of what he considered misleading statements by Trump, or areas where the president has changed his tune since the 2016 campaign.

“As president, not only has Trump not taken on Wall Street, he has appointed more Wall Street billionaires to his administration than any president in history. And now, on behalf of Wall Street, he is trying to repeal the modest provisions of the Dodd-Frank legislation which provide consumer protections against Wall Street thievery,” Sanders said.

In some sense, the Sanders and Kennedy speeches were complementary.

The Sanders appeal was more outwardly political than Kennedy’s, though the Massachusetts congressman did make mention of the rise of grassroots activism during Trump’s first year.

“I understand that the Koch brothers and their billionaire friends are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2018 midterm elections supporting the Trump agenda and right-wing Republicans. They have the money, an unlimited amount of money,” Sanders said.

“But we have the people, and when ordinary people stand up and fight for justice there is nothing that we cannot accomplish,” he said. “That has been the history of America, and that is our future.”

Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.Correction Jan. 31, 1:13 a.m. | An earlier version of this story misidentified the California Democratic congresswoman who offered an unofficial response to the president’s State of the Union address. It was Rep. Maxine Waters.

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