The task of delivering the opposition party’s official response to a presidential State of the Union address has often done rising political stars more harm than good, as evidenced by the poor reviews earned by presidential wannabes Bobby Jindal (2009) and Marco Rubio (2013), and mixed assessments for Tim Kaine (2006), Joni Ernst (2015), and Nikki Haley (2016), among others. The pitfalls are well-known: The responder has to prepare remarks before the presidential address and deliver them afterwards; party leaders invariably try to control the message, which cannot discomfit any party faction. Any missteps are pounced upon immediately by the president’s party and by intraparty rivals.
So in agreeing to take on Trump’s third (or second, since annual speeches delivered at the beginning of a president’s first term are technically just joint addresses to Congress) State of the Union address, former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams is taking a risk. But it’s a risk that could pay off decisively for a pol whose highest attained office so far is the state legislature.
Abrams is certainly better positioned than the last two Democrats who delivered their party’s answer to Trump. In 2017 Democrats were still intensely focused on the white working-class voters who had played so conspicuous a role in Trump’s 2016 win, making Kentucky’s Steve Beshear a natural if hardly a universally appealing choice. In 2018 the desire for fresh Democratic faces informed the decision to go with Representative Joe Kennedy. In both cases Democratic disagreements over strategy and tactics inhibited any full-blooded party response.
But Abrams will speak as the messenger of a newly confident party fresh from a big midterm win and a successful post-election joust with Trump over his border-wall fetish and his mismanagement of an appropriations fight. She will also benefit from the almost certain knowledge that Trump will devote much of his address to an ex-post-facto justification of his decision to shut down the federal government and his imminent declaration of a national emergency to secure funding for his precious wall, both dependent on an entirely bogus border “crisis.” The opportunity to explode the myth of this crisis should overcome any temptation to ignore immigration policy as enemy turf, particularly for a speaker as talented as Abrams.
In her gubernatorial campaign Abrams showed an exceptional ability to contextualize national Democratic themes to the concrete decisions facing her state, with a particular focus on health-care policy. And above all, she is adept at exposing the extent to which Trump’s Republican Party has come to be dependent on voter suppression and other fundamentally anti-democratic — indeed anti-American — practices in the pursuit of power and privilege. At a time when Democrats need to maintain the enthusiasm that fed their special election and midterm wins, it’s no time for a pallid recitation of narrow policy prescriptions dressed up as an agenda. Stacey Abrams has the kind of morally passionate voice that Democrats need to learn to emulate as the drive to eject Trump from the White House reaches a new phase.
Abrams was probably chosen for this assignment after meeting with Chuck Schumer to discuss a 2020 Senate race in Georgia. If she does well, it certainly won’t hurt her Senate fundraising capacities or her long-term future. But if she really seizes the opportunity, don’t be surprised if there are renewed calls for her to heighten her ambitions and add her distinctive presence to a crowded but somehow unsatisfying 2020 presidential field.