Ex-CIA and Democrat: Democrats should own mistakes, reach out to Trump voters in State of the Union response

As President Trump prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address, Democrats have selected Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., to deliver the party’s response. If history is any guide, Kennedy will criticize President Trump and promote the Democratic Party instead.

Yet doing so would represent a missed opportunity. Since Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, the party hasn’t fully understood or accepted the plight of America’s working class and their desire for change. Case in point: Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recently slammed the $1,000 bonuses some companies were offering their workers following the Trump tax cuts.

Crumbs,” she called the amount. Never mind that $1,000 is more than the average weekly pay for the men and women at America’s factories.

Kennedy’s speech needs to tackle this ignorance head on, blasting the Democratic Party out of its elitist moorings, and chart a course back to victory. To do so, he needs to offer Americans something different. Something bold. Something totally unexpected.

Here’s what I hope he says.

“Good Evening. Tonight I stand before you as a humbled man from a humbled party.

A little over a year ago, my fellow Democrats and I ran spirited campaigns across the country to lead our great nation into the 21st century. When the dust settled, however, it became clear that America had chosen a different path.

America’s greatness is not at risk because of Russia, China, or North Korea. Rather, it is the partisanship that has rooted in the hearts and minds of our leaders.

The most obvious disappointment was losing the presidency. But that loss hides the more painful truth: my party now has the fewest number of elected officials since the 1920s.

There’s no other way to say it. We somehow lost the confidence of our fellow Americans. 

For the past year, I have spent considerable time listening to the people of Massachusetts and states beyond to understand exactly what happened. Tonight I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned, because those voices – your voices – tell the important story of the state of our union.

In virtually every conversation I’ve had, I’ve walked away with the clear message that many Americans are hurting – and angry. In Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, many of your steel mills and manufacturing plants have shut down. The same is true of furniture and clothing companies in North Carolina. The reason? Global trade deals, especially with China.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the 1990s, politicians in Washington promised you that, in exchange for your shuttered mills and plants, new jobs would come along. Better, safer jobs. But it turns out that their promises were wrong. Studies now show that many communities have been devastated by these trade deals and have yet to recover.

In the Pacific Northwest and Appalachia, your struggles are similar. The timber mills and mines that powered your rural cities have largely closed, hammered by environmental regulations and a fight against global warming. Some of those rules were important and necessary. Others were not. Regardless, your government took away too much, and gave too little in return.

Rather than acknowledge their mistakes, some politicians – including Democrats – have attacked you and your suffering. They dismissed you as deplorables who cling to your guns and your God. That is unforgivable. I am sorry.

To add further insult to injury, many of these same politicians have failed you in protecting the nation from foreign threats. Take China as an example. For the past 20 years, our intelligence community has repeatedly warned that Beijing was stealing or hacking hundreds of billions of dollars in American technology for their own benefit.

The result? A communist nation – unmoored by decency or a commitment to basic freedoms – has robbed us of the very jobs and ingenuity we need to thrive in the 21st century. To this day, the Chinese have never paid a price for their treachery.

Meanwhile, your leadership launched an unnecessary war in Iraq, costing over $6 trillion dollars and ending the lives of thousands of your loved ones. These politicians also emboldened a group of Islamic radicals that later morphed into what we now call ISIS.

And even that fight they couldn’t get right. While ISIS is now on the run, their ideology is not. Since the attacks on 9/11, the world has desperately needed global leadership to name and explain the religious beliefs that underpin terrorism – specifically a brand of Islam called Salafism. Instead, they simply say Islam is a religion of peace. 

These are just a small sample of the many issues that you shared with me in frustration. And yet time and again, you also shared a willingness to find solutions. To compromise. To get America back to work. In fact, that’s what struck me the most. People on both sides of the aisle want Washington to stop the fighting and start governing again.

But somehow, that message isn’t reaching many of my colleagues.

And that’s perhaps the most important issue of our time. America’s greatness is not at risk because of Russia, China, or North Korea. Rather, it is the partisanship that has rooted in the hearts and minds of our leaders.

In the years since my grandfather and great uncles helped defeat the Soviet Union, race to the moon, and pass the Civil Rights Act, our politicians have seemingly lost their desire to find common cause and embrace common goals. Instead, they’ve locked on to America’s darkest forces – the activists, the lobbyists – who have demanded political purity… or else.

Sadly, this partisanship has crept into our society as a whole. Think about how we speak to each other without concern for decency or kindness. We use words like “libtard” or “Trumpsters.” None of it appeals to our better angels. None of it elevates our families, our friendships, or our politics.

And that gets to the most important reason for why I’m here tonight. How do we fix what ails us? Can we fix what ails us?

The answer, I’m happy to say, is yes. For all of the troubles we have – and it’s clear that we have many – we also remain an exceptional nation.

Renewing the American spirit will not come easy. And it’s up to you to decide whether President Trump remains the best person to accomplish that goal. But as for the Democrats, we owe it to you to offer a new covenant in recognition of where we’ve fallen short.

Tonight I give you a new path forward. I offer you Our American Oath.

Our oath consists of 10 priorities that I’ve heard many of you express as the most important to you and your families. Democrats and Republicans alike. In the days ahead, I’ll be sharing more about these priorities with you. But, for tonight, let me tell you what I believe to be most critical.

First, renewal starts with fixing our broken political system. That means a constitutional amendment for term limits and a lifetime ban on elected officials serving as lobbyists. Say what you will about President Trump, but I share his desire to drain America’s swamp. 

As a demonstration of my seriousness, I’m calling on Rep. Pelosi and Sen. Schumer to step down from their leadership posts. The country cannot move forward with officials who think that a government shutdown is in our best interest, or that a $1,000 bonus is a meaningless crumb.

I also call on Republican leadership to step down as well. We need a clean start.

With new blood, Congress can offer a new approach with President Trump. I believe we should meet at Camp David for a five-day summit, plotting how we can best work together. The most important priority for Democrats would be getting a commitment and timeline for advancing term limits and a ban on lobbyists.

Next, our focus would be on how to best support America’s working class. Part of that is collaborating with the Trump administration on the renegotiation of NAFTA and changes to the World Trade Organization. We’re also eager to prioritize inner cities and rural communities as we craft a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Third, we want to work with the president on doubling down on our support for the solar, wind, and natural gas industries. The wars of the Bush and Obama administrations were fought over oil. That has to stop, and we can do it with renewable, homegrown energy.

And that speaks to the wholesale change needed in our foreign policies. Though ultimately the domain of the president, Congress needs to work hand in glove with him on bringing the nation together in the face of global threats.

Most important of these is China and Russia. It’s time to acknowledge that we are in a new Cold War with these nations, both of which have the resources and conviction to wreck global peace, prosperity, and freedom. We’ll need our diplomats, spies, and military leaders to help guide us through this long struggle. And we’ll need our president to make it resolutely clear that he will stand against Chinese and Russian aggression.

Additionally, our fight against terrorism should include tough measures against the radical Salafi ideology that pours from Saudi Arabia. We’ll need to rework the Muslim ban, as the issue will not be solved by targeting a few countries but rather by countering a global ideology.

There are of course other issues to be discussed – reforming immigration, education and entitlements in particular – and I suspect that we’ll have disagreements. But if each side is flexible, progress can be made.

Beyond the debates of policy, a productive summit in and of itself would show our fellow Americans that we can lower the temperature of the nation’s heated politics. We would show America that it still has leaders that can focus on solving problems and facing threats, not spewing personal insults on Twitter or shouting obscenities in meetings.

At the end of the day, that’s the kind of leadership that you’ll see from me and other Democrats who embrace Our American Oath. Through actions of integrity and fortitude, we will inspire each other to make America the more perfect union that our founding fathers and mothers intended some 230 years ago.

With that, I wish you a good night and safe journey wherever this message finds you. May God keep and protect you, and may His Divine Providence bless all of us with an abundance of strength and compassion.”

Bryan Dean Wright is a former covert CIA officer and member of the Democratic Party who resides in Oregon. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.