Stacey Abrams’s official Democratic response to the State of the Union address will not make people beat on each other with big sticks, or elevate her to a 2020 presidential candidacy. But it did show a national audience qualities that Georgians know well, and that fed her audacious and nearly successful 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Indeed, according to the low bar set by SOTUS respondents of both parties in recent years, Abrams’s effort was likely the best at least since Jim Webb’s response to George W. Bush in 2007. Given the time constraints involved, Abrams nicely balanced multiple goals of relatability (her opening anecdote about her father and a homeless man was well-wrought), responsiveness, and comprehensiveness. She did not get around to her signature issue of voting rights until the end, and she set it up excellently as a reflection of the shared values she touted as central to her party’s agenda. She touched on enough real-life issues – from preexisting health conditions to student loan debt to lagging wage growth and even collective bargaining rights – to distinguish herself sharply from the weird, 30,000-feet perspective of the president. And her delivery and command of issues were flawless.
As someone who thought this could be a really big opportunity for Abrams, I wish she had gone after Trump more forcefully, especially on his trumped-up border crisis, his erratic international policies, and his solidarity with racists at home and abroad. But she did flatly accuse him of engineering the government shutdown as a “political stunt,” scored his immigration policies as cruel (while carefully making it clear that Democrats did not favor “open borders”) and did no kowtowing to the man whatsoever. In general her tone — nicely rounded by her smile and charm — was much like her gubernatorial campaign and the way she chose to end it: gracious but with not a hint of surrender. Abrams (along with Florida’s Andrew Gillum) has already changed the future of southern politics by demonstrating that Democrats need not run as half-apologetic centrists ignoring their own electoral base to be competitive in red states. She may soon emerge as a regular national political figure, and not just for an evening.