Though it is considered a great honor and potential political ambition enhancer to be selected to give the official response to an address by the President of the United States – State of the Union and otherwise — the outcome often falls far short of the potential. It has almost become a bit of a political jinx that seems to have ended more promising political careers than it has launched.
One only need harken back to 2009 and the response of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to a speech (not SOTU, however) by President Obama. As an Indian-American (of the kind that comes from India), Jindal was the bright new face of the GOP. When his response came across more like a high schooler giving his first civics oration, Jindal’s promising career seemed to slip off into political oblivion.
Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear decided to use a rustic setting – a small diner in Lexington. He was surrounded by a lot of handshaking friends from down home. Rather than a serious response to President Trump’s 2017 address to Congress, Beshear came across as a mix between Green Acres and the Beverly Hillbillies. He got more ridicule than accolades.
The substance of Senator Marco Rubio’s response was overshadowed by a long reach for an off-camera bottle of water. If Abraham Lincoln had experienced a sudden thirst at Gettysburg, his words might have lived up to his expressed expectation — that, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”
The SOTU response jinx even snagged no less a political powerhouse – at least in name – than Congressman Joe Kennedy III, grandson of the late Senator Bobby Kennedy. The third’s speech came across more like an actor trying to play a Kennedy than the real McCoy – and then there was that embarrassing drooling. His return to obscurity is reflected that he is not even mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate.
If you locked-in on MSNBC post-SOTU coverage, you might be inclined to believe that this year’s responder, Stacy Abrams – recently defeated for governor of Georgia – was magnificent. That judgment, however, is based solely on the fact that she is a progressive black woman – which means she would have been praised by the fawning MSNBC panelists even if she had fallen down drunk after a few incoherent sentences.
No … those with less sycophantic tendencies are likely to see the Abrams offering as yet another failed effort.
Abrams fell victim to a common trait among many responders. She did not respond. He speech was canned campaign rhetoric – and a bit obvious in its primary purpose of promoting her future candidacy for the United States Senate.
Abrams overly long introduction to her own up-from-poverty and the things-my parents-taught-me narratives were too obvious and too much of a political cliché. In the political consulting business, we call this the “log cabin” story – you know, the early memories of a dirt floor and no wood for the fireplace on those cold winter nights. Ironically, studies suggest that these iconic self-serving mini-biographies are of the least interest and credibility with the average voter. To believe them is to believe that Senator Richard Blumenthal really served in Vietnam and that Senator Warren is a Native American.
After completing her campaign speech, Abrams did offer up a litany of Democrat talking points that had little to nothing to do with President Trump’s Speech. Perhaps she was too busy rehearsing her response to even listen to Trump. There was nothing in the response to suggest that Abrams had heard a word of it.
Abrams described American in familiar terms – but more suited to the 1930s than today’s America. To believe her assessment, millions of families are descending into abject poverty … factories are closing all across the country … people are losing their jobs. Vast numbers of we the people are torn between paying the rent or buying our pills. The only problem with his vision, it is in no way the modern American reality.
She peddled the slander of pandemic racism among the populace – presumably, the white populace – and, with unabashed hyperbole, Abrams argued that voter suppression was a clear and present danger to the Republic. She did not touch on deadly urban institutional racism that permeates our Democrat-controlled cities.
Finally, there was the setting – the backdrop. Democrats seem to have a problem with that. In addition to Beshear’s hokey rustic restaurant setting, there was that hilarious response to an earlier Trump national address in which Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did a great tableau of the famous American Gothic painting.
For her venture into the vagaries of presidential response land, Abrams selected a rather nondescript sterile image. There she was at a podium that looked too similar to the one used by Schumer and Pelosi. Architecturally, it was a big empty space – no iconic pillars, no cozy book-lined room, no food counter. The scene was framed by American and State of Georgia flags. Then there were all those folks in the background.
Who were they? Why were they there? Standing on a multi-level riser, they looked more like a high school choir during a break in rehearsal than … than whatever they were supposed to be or represent. Yes, they were props, to be sure. But what was the message? Young Kennedy had used a bunch of Millennials, but at least they hooted and hollered on cue. The folks behind Abrams could have been an image on a billboard. Hmmm. Maybe it was.
Whether Abrams will have a long and successful political future is undeterminable at this juncture, but it pretty is safe to say that her response to Trump’s State of the Union Speech will not have helped.
So, there ‘tis.