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Rep. Joe Kennedy Discusses The Democratic Agenda Going Forward


Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy says he doesn't exactly know how he got picked to give the Democrats' response to the State of the Union last night. All he knows is that it started at work one day with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

JOE KENNEDY: Leader Pelosi approached me and said that she wanted to chat. And I said of course, and she pulled me off the floor. And then we kept going into her office, and then she kicked out her whole staff. And I at that point thought I was in trouble.

MCEVERS: He wasn't in trouble. And when he figured out that Pelosi was asking him to respond to the State of the Union, Kennedy said he was thrilled and a little terrified.

KENNEDY: I had seen some of these speeches before and had thought, that's the worst job in politics. Why would you ever do that? Of course when I got asked to do it, which came a bit out of the blue, I was honored to be able to do so.

MCEVERS: Earlier today, I asked Kennedy about his speech and one of his themes, bipartisan unity, at a time when Washington seems as divided as ever.

KENNEDY: The partisanship unfortunately at the moment is real. There are, though, far more areas of common ground out there than people expect. There are the votes today in the House of Representatives, I believe, for an immigration fix, particularly for DACA. There were the votes out there for a bipartisan tax bill. There's votes out there I think to strengthen our health care system.

We're not getting governance that is willing to engage, at least in the House yet, Democrats. And the answer to this moment that we're in isn't more and more partisanship. It's actually forcing sides to work together and empowering compromise. That means taking some of the vitriol out of politics.

The reality of it, though, is that the loudest microphone and the most potent one begins and ends in the White House. So you're not going to be able to do that effectively unless the president of the United States is putting real emphasis on it. And so far, we haven't seen him try to do that.

MCEVERS: Last night in your speech, you talked about #MeToo, the movement among women. You talked about Black Lives Matter. You talked about protecting immigrants and the LGBTQ community. And you also talked about the economy quite a bit. As you look forward, aside from just positioning itself as opposition to Donald Trump, what is the message that the Democratic Party needs to put out in 2018 as people go to vote again in midterm elections?

KENNEDY: A couple of things - one, that your government's got your back regardless of who you are, who you love, country you come from, that you are here. You are valued. We want you on our playing field. We want you on our team. We want to contribute it back to your community, your country. That's stuff like civil rights. It's social justice. Those are things that Democrats have traditionally been very good at and issues we've been good on and I think most folks think represent the Democratic Party.

But the second step to that is, if you are in a circumstance where you are struggling to keep a roof over your head, food on your plate, your kid in school and save for retirement, if you can't do that, then almost nothing else matters. That is where things begin and end for most American families. And that's not too much to ask. We have to ensure that there's an economy out there that is including everyone, and that's where I think Democrats have to - have an opportunity to own a bit of this message.

Look; no one is going to be against - should they be against an increasing stock market. That's a good thing. That's good news for pensions. That's good news for Americans. However, we have to acknowledge the fact that 50 percent of Americans don't own a single stock, and 80 percent of the stocks are controlled by about 10 percent of American families.

So judging the overall health of our economy based solely on the stock market valuation I think risks missing out on a sizable percentage of our population that has been - the folks that have been at risk of being left behind in the first place. That is where we have to focus. That has to be our charge.

MCEVERS: If the economy continues to get better, not just the stock market - right? - if you just start to see a general trend in a better economy, which we are seeing, does that make it harder, you know, for you to own that message?

KENNEDY: I don't think so. I mean, I think - look; again, no one should be arguing against a strengthening economy. What we can I think make an argument for is an economy that works for everyone. And if we look at particularly the details of a tax plan that has been passed that the president continues to point to, that tax plan, while, yes, there is some benefit in it to middle-class families, there is no serious independent economic analysis that has said that that was a really - a middle-class tax plan.

The vast majority of those benefits are tilted towards the upper class. The vast majority of those benefits are tilted towards corporations. And the extent that those corporations, one, trickle down - yes, but it's a trickle. And two, it's reflected in stock price, which, again, 50 percent of Americans don't own. So we have I think a responsibility and an obligation to point out the fact that a strengthening economy is a good thing. We need to make sure all boats are lifted.

MCEVERS: Congressman Joe Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, thanks a lot.

KENNEDY: Thank you so much - appreciate the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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