On Tuesday, February 28, Donald Trump will address a joint session of Congress. It is, functionally, a State of the Union Address, though by custom (and the wording of the constitutional mandate for this big speech) presidents don’t give SOTUs immediately after taking office.
So it’s a big deal, which all major and many minor media will cover live. Aside from its value to Trump and to the Republicans who will cheer him, the event offers Democrats an opportunity to show a unified and vigorous response.
Who, then, will the donkey party, newly energized by a consensus favoring maximum opposition to the new GOP trifecta regime and its frightening leader, offer up to rally the troops? Elizabeth Warren? Bernie Sanders? Al Franken? Maybe a gubernatorial symbol of resistance like Jerry Brown? And if not a well-known political veteran perhaps a “rising star” like Kirsten Gillibrand or Cory Booker? How about even a baptism by fire for whomever wins the DNC chairmanship this weekend?
Nope. The Democratic response will be given by former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear. He’s been out of office for over a year, and is a 72-year-old politician who first won public office during the Nixon administration. And far from having a reputation as a masterful stem-winding speaker, he once delivered an address in the middle of a reelection campaign at a site where red meat is the only thing ever on the menu, and instead did one of those “tribute to our troops” speeches more suited for a VFW conference.
Choosing Beshear invokes a questionable tradition. Remember the last official Democratic response to a GOP presidential address? Me either. I had to look it up: It was delivered in 2008 by another Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, and was later rated one of the “five worst State of the Union responses” ever. I did remember Tim Kaine’s snoozer of a response to George W. Bush two years earlier, which is one reason I described him as “boring” when he was chosen as Hillary Clinton’s running-mate last year (though I thought, erroneously it seems, that excitement was not what the ticket needed for victory).
Sandwiched between these two gubernatorial efforts was Jim Webb’s passionate response to W. in 2007, which strikes me as a pretty good template for the tone Democrats want right now.
Like fellow “centrists” Kaine and Sebelius, Beshear has some credibility issues with progressives. In his case, it’s a retrograde defense of Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban just three months before the Supreme Court made it irrelevant (Beshear did adjust quickly, unlike certain other Kentuckians).
There is, of course, a logic to Beshear’s selection, as explained by Matt Yglesias:
The selection of former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is a sign that Democrats are making a clear choice. Whatever it is that Trump talks about, they are going to talk about health care — about how Republicans want to deregulate the insurance industry and jeopardize insurance that millions of people currently enjoy, while Democrats do not want to do that.
Obamacare is enjoying an upsurge of support right now, and no matter what the erratic Trump decides to talk about, touting the success of Obamacare in Kentucky — one of its brightest spots, even though the Bluegrass State is quite conservative and went easily for Trump — is something that is relevant in almost any event. By talking about what the people of his state gained by fully complying with Obamacare, and what they could lose if Trump and his party ever get their act together to repeal it, Beshear is well-equipped to put Republicans on the spot and cast some doubt on the triumphalist gloating that will surely characterize the president’s address no matter where he ultimately veers. It is worth remembering, additionally, that a lot of the passionate rhetoric of resistance to Trump, especially at congressional town hall meetings, is precisely about GOP efforts to throw people off of their health insurance.
But still, unless he’s very loud and proud, Beshear could disappoint Democrats expecting righteous anger, not just good health-care policy and some telling anecdotes. I don’t know what sort of thing would really infuriate Steve Beshear and put him in an appropriate mood to take on Trump. Maybe his handlers could tell him the 45th president has called his Kentucky Wildcats (Beshear has two degrees from the university, and was once student body president) “losers.”