The SOTU and Democratic Response: My Take
My eyes are cast toward 2020, as I imagine are those of many others tonight.
Given that, what did I see?
Something that made me nervous.
Trump appeared relaxed, on his game and using the various tools available to a President at the SOTU: an array of appealing characters in the gallery which he highlighted in a calculating way, lots of WWII feel-good symbolism, the occasional crafty aside to the sullen opposition, and a laundry list of economic indicators that burnished his argument.
In other words, soft on demagoguery, long on what for Trump passes as charm.
As a preview of his 2020 pitch, it seemed to me alarmingly convincing.
Then, Stacy Abrams in response.
It’s an impossible position.
But it seemed so crafted, Clearly, not a “response” to what Trump had said, but a crafted response with a list of “talking points” at hand.
The opening vignette about her family. Then the appeal to this constituency or that. With a little of her own recent election (defeat) thrown in, on “voter suppression.”
I would have loved to see Abrams speak from her heart and her gut, calling Trump out on his dog whistles to racists and his distortion of the facts about the real threats on the southern border. Take the bugger on.
The thing Trump did, which Abram and Democrats have failed to do, is tap into and speak to American patriotism and yes, in Trump’s word of the night, to American “greatness.” Trump was telling a story. I didn’t get that from Abrams.
I don’t trust Trump’s use of those themes for a minute. But they are effective themes. They are “us” not “me” themes. They are aspirational. They make people feel good, part of a larger narrative.
Trump brought up recent New York legislation on third trimester abortion. I don’t think it wise for Democrats to ramp up to 2020 on this issue. Americans may not want to criminalize abortion, but they aren’t comfortable with the idea of taking the lives of viable infants in the last trimester. Nor should they be.
Abrams, by contrast to Trump, appealed to interest and constituency groups, and intoned the word “diversity,” as if it were some sort of magic incantation. I worked for Clinton in 2016, when the mantra was “Stronger Together.” I thought I heard a reprise of that tonight from Abrams. Did not anyone notice that it didn’t bring Clinton victory then?
I don’t expect that tonight’s SOTU will have much effect on politics in the immediate future.
But if what happened tonight had 2020 in view — as I believe it did — I’m concerned. I’m concerned about Trump’s ability to modulate his demagogic instincts and make his pitch. And I’m worried about the Democratic Party and its leaders ability to say something compelling.