After the State of the Union and the official Democratic response delivered by Georgia politician Stacey Abrams, Bernie Sanders hopped on a livestream around 11 p.m. to give 28 more minutes of speechmaking to anyone caffeinated, or masochistic, enough to tune in for almost three net hours of political rhetoric on a Tuesday night.
If the premise of a SOTU response is to build the platform for a future campaign, then it was a successful speech, starting out, unsurprisingly, with a different angle on Trump’s claim that America’s economy is the “hottest” in the world. “President Trump didn’t mention this in his speech: We have more wealth and income inequality than almost any major country on Earth,” Sanders said, sharing several facts that illustrate the nation’s staggering economic divides — that our three wealthiest individuals are richer than the bottom 50 percent of Americans; that the top 25 hedge-fund managers made nearly twice as much income as all 140,000 kindergarten teachers combined, and other such outrages of disparity.
At this point, it’s the expected tune from Sanders, but one that proves he is viable as a 2020 candidate if, or when, he so chooses. The Democratic Party in 2019 — with its proposed wealth tax, 70 percent top marginal income tax, and Sanders’s own increase on inheritance taxes for the ultrawealthy — looks a lot more friendly to his brand of democratic socialism than it did at any other point in his 29-year career in Congress. And according to polling from the Pew Research Center, the proportion of Democrats “who believe the system is unfair” has grown from 71 percent in 2014 to 84 percent today — the kind of intraparty shift that could make a Sanders run in 2020 a lot more viable than his previous go at the nomination.
The independent senator also dug into Trump’s claim that, “Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.” Sanders pointed out that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than the general American public, and that the president’s “demonization of Latinos is nothing less than racist.” When Trump brought out the family of a couple killed by an undocumented person in Reno as an example of crimes committed by immigrants, Sanders brought up the fact that, in the same state, a white American orchestrated the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history less than two years ago.
This sort of tit-for-tat strategy feels a little old two years into the administration — going after every Trump obfuscation or obvious lie is a game of whack-a-mole no candidate should play in 2020. But a highlight of Sanders’s speech occurred when he rebutted the president’s claim that Americans are “alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country” (a statement that may be the best thing to happen to the DSA since the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Sanders countered with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. from just before his death, when he was leading the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice: “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.” It’s a nice quote to pull out on a billionaire who did not pay federal taxes for years, and whose father propped him up through almost all of his pre-Apprentice career of driving real estate and casino deals into the ground.
But it may all be for naught if, in the morning, Democrats still consider Sanders’s speech to be a jab at the party. Upon announcing that he would deliver post-SOTU remarks on his own stream, some Democrats felt that he was stiffing Abrams, the 2018 nominee for governor in Georgia, for whom the official remarks were an opportunity to launch a national platform. For others, it was another manifestation of Sanders’s weakness in 2016: that he did not do enough to appeal to black voters in the South.