WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — In the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, Stacey Abrams called for a “renewed commitment to social and economic justice” in the United States.
Standing in front of a diverse audience in Atlanta, Abrams, who lost a close race for the governorship in Georgia in November, recounted her childhood and her parents’ economic struggles.
“I stand here tonight because I hold fast to my father’s credo: together, we are coming for America, for a better America,” Abrams said.
Like Trump, she focused on the importance of unity and cooperation, but she also hammered the president for “making the livelihood of our federal workers pawns” in a recent partial government shutdown.
Abrams also countered Trump’s immigration rhetoric, which often depicts Democrats as unwilling to support border security because they oppose border wall funding.
“Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders,” she said, likening the party's stance to that of Republican President Ronald Reagan.
As she outlined Democratic ideals and policies, Abrams returned to the contested gubernatorial election in which she never officially conceded defeat. She has accused Gov. Brian Kemp, who was also secretary of state during the campaign, of suppressing votes in order to win—an allegation he denies.
“None of these ambitions are possible without the bedrock guarantee of our right to vote. Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” she said.
Despite their obvious differences on many, many issues, Abrams closed by stressing that she wants President Trump to succeed on behalf of the country.
“I still don’t want him to fail but we need him to tell the truth and respect his duties,” she said.
The opposition response to the State of the Union is a relatively new tradition, dating back to the 1960s, and parties today often look for a speaker who provides “an eloquent contrast to whoever’s in the White House,” according to Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic state senator from Ohio who teaches at the American University School of Public Affairs. The potential benefit for Abrams, who is eyeing a 2020 Senate bid against GOP Sen. David Perdue, is huge, but so is the danger.
“She has to be careful because anything she says can be used in an ad against her, but that’s the risk anyone takes that is doing the response,” Cafaro said before the speech.
For a party with literally dozens of members eager to boost their profile ahead of the 2020 presidential race, Democrats selecting a woman whose main distinction on the national stage is losing an election may seem unusual. The speech is often delivered by current or former governors and members of Congress, but Cafaro suggested someone who has not yet held statewide office like Abrams may carry more credibility with the public than a Washington insider.
“She is someone who is somewhat well-knownbut, at the same time, is not saddled with all the issues that exist inside the beltway,” she said.
While Abrams failed to secure the Georgia governorship, her loss to Kemp, who oversaw the election as secretary of state, has made her exhibit A in Democrats’ case against voter suppression tactics. Abrams has launched a nonprofit group, Fair Fight Action, to challenge Georgia election rules, and Whalen predicted alleged suppression is a subject voters will hear a lot about from Democrats over the next two years.
“This is going to be a big issue in 2020: is everyone’s voice going to be counted in this election?” said Tom Whalen, author of “JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power” and an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University.
As the first African-American woman to deliver a State of the Union response, Cafaro said Abrams also represents the current makeup of the Democratic Party, which just seized control of the House of Representatives with a freshman class filled with women and people of color.
“Stacey Abrams captures this moment in time as a diverse party and, frankly, a diverse nation,” she said.
At a time when President Trump regularly brands the Democratic Party as the party of crime and open borders, Abrams was tasked with laying out the party’s true goals in a somewhat definitive fashion.
As she attempted to provide that policy vision, Abrams had to contend with other responses to the speech from further left. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is considering running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, delivered his annual response after Abrams. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who is already running for president, offered a pre-buttal on Facebook Live before Trump spoke.
In advance of Tuesday’s speech, the White House stressed the theme of unity and an intended focus on bipartisan cooperation. For Abrams, countering an optimistic message from an otherwise unpopular and divisive president presented a difficult balancing act.
“In State of the Unions, presidents always want to portray themselves as unifiers She can’t appear as an obstructionist, and that’s hard to do, because the nature [of the response] is you have to oppose whatever the president says,” Whalen said. “That’s the political circle that has to be squared here.”
The rebuttal by the opposition has taken many forms over the years. Party leaders, elder statesmen, and up-and-comers have all been chosen for the task, depending on the political needs of the party at the time. It has not always gone well.
In what The Washington Post once described as “the best/worst State of the Union response ever,” then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton moderated a discussion between politicians and a focus group of regular Americans following President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 address.
Clinton obviously survived the experience, but others have struggled to crawl out from the wreckage of an awkward performance. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., grasping for water while trying to keep his eyes on the camera in the widely-mocked 2013 response may be the first that comes to mind.
Then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was seen as a rising star among Republicans in 2009, much like Abrams is now among Democrats, but his stilted delivery of a rebuttal to President Barack Obama promptly slowed that rise. In 2017, former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear offered a puzzling response to Trump’s first address to Congress from a Lexington diner in which he declared himself “a proud Republican and Democrat and mostly American.”
A further complication State of the Union responders have faced in the last decade or so is social media, which can capture and amplify any mistake into a trending hashtag or viral video within minutes.
“The stakes are certainly higher, and the potential for ridicule,” Whalen said. “It’s one thing to be criticized for what you say and it’s another to be mocked on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Clinton aside, those who have been most successful in parlaying a State of the Union response into political success are often the ones nobody remembers.
Then-Rep. Paul Ryan delivered the Republican response to President Obama in 2011. He became Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate the following year, and he was later elected speaker of the House. Nikki Haley, at the time governor of South Carolina, rebutted Obama in 2016, and she was then selected by President Trump to be ambassador to the United Nations.
Even Rubio mostly overcame his hydration stumble, but it still haunts him. At the height of Rubio’s unsuccessful run for president in 2016, Trump mocked him on stage and at one point sent his campaign a case of Trump Ice spring water.