Most State of the Union responses by the opposition party are painfully awkward. Stacey Abrams managed not to be, so that alone is an achievement. It’s hard not to grimace when reflecting on past responses featuring down-home heartland governors inexplicably sitting in diners, or perhaps Marco Rubio’s infamous water-bottle sipping episode, which earned him a life-long reputation for unquenchable thirst.
Abrams seemed natural and amiable, without resorting to any especially tedious gimmicks (other than the silly backdrop of random people standing behind her. Why is this necessary?). She also made some compelling substantive points. Recalling the sorry spectacle of furloughed federal workers standing in line for food handouts was wise, considering that Trump just got done orchestrating the longest government shutdown in American history, and didn’t once bring it up in his address (probably because the gambit backfired spectacularly). Castigating Trump for this colossally stupid strategy – she rightly called the shutdown ‘a stunt engineered by the president’ – was both politically salient and factually accurate.
Cleverly, Abrams also deployed one of Trump’s most effective rhetorical moves against him. She said the GOP’s corporation-servile economic agenda ‘rigged the system’ against working people, which is a more-or-less defensible claim, considering Trump’s only major legislative accomplishment in two years was a tax cut generated by Paul Ryan. And the main effect of that bill was to enrich corporations and the wealthiest Americans, juicing the economy for the already-well-off. Even the most minimally-astute Democrats should be able to discuss this in a way that disadvantages Trump. He campaigned in 2016 against a system he said was rigged to screw over ordinary folks, but hasn’t done much in the way of unrigging.
Abrams made one other particularly notable rhetorical tack. For all Trump’s faults, Abrams contended: ‘I still don’t want him to fail.’ That’s actually quite a concession for a Democrat selected to speak on behalf of the entire national party, whose membership is often in a state of panicked, angry frenzy with regard to Trump. They don’t just want him to fail, they want him jailed for treason. But Abrams transcended this rageful impulse and instead came across more like a disappointed parent – wanting him to do better, for the good of the country, but knowing deep down that he won’t. It’s actually a politically sound way to frame the issue – much better than any screechy ‘Resistance’ mantra.
Bernie Sanders delivered some remarks of his own on Facebook, which according to the stupider elements of Twitter constitutes an attempt on his part to ‘erase’ Abrams and thereby insult all American black women. But I don’t think most sane people will come to that conclusion. After all, the State of the Union itself is an exercise in vainglorious insanity. I counted a total of four ‘USA’ chants, one rendition of ‘Happy Birthday,’ and scattered dance moves, which gave the affair the impression of an unruly, drunken fraternity party. By comparison, Abrams looked eminently sensible.