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Notes on the Democratic Response(s) to Trump’s Take on the State of the Union

Last night President Donald Trump promised “unity” during his State of the Union address, then quickly proceeded to advance discord during the same address. Minutes later, former Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D) challenged Trump’s take on the state of the union as she delivered the Democratic response. Here are a few takeaways from Abrams’ response, and on how Democrats overall are responding to Trump as they prepare to run against him next year.

A reminder of how Stacey Abrams just made her-story

In the past week, Democrats have (once again) had to come to terms with their identity, their values, and their stance against racist and sexist misconduct thanks to a series of gruesome scandals engulfing Virginia’s top Democratic elected officials. While there’s no shortage of far-right shenanigans that cast doubt on these scandals, they’ve nonetheless created a fresh round of heartburn on the left side of the aisle over what’s really the right thing to do.

Against this troubling backdrop, Stacey Abrams delivered the official Democratic Party response to Trump’s speech. Think about this for a moment: An African-American woman who fearlessly ran on a boldly progressive platform in what was once considered a “blood red Deep South state” gave the Democrats’ response just two years after the party tapped former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (D) to deliver the kind of response that could appeal to reluctant Trump voters.

Abrams herself seemed to acknowledge this unique moment in time at the tail-end of her response when she stated, “Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment – to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America, together. […] That is who we are – and when we do so, never wavering – the state of our union will always be strong.”

Yes, Trump went there on immigration. But last night, Democrats pushed back.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Around the time we published our State of the Union preview, the White House was promising a speech focused on “unity”. But in the immediate hours preceding the main event, that message of “unity” quickly devolved into the typical partisan war of words that’s all too common in the Trump era. By the time he was in the House chambers, Trump faced some of the very people he previously denigrated as “animals” and “criminals”, and Trump proceeded to attack them some more.

During her response, Abrams rebutted, “We know bipartisanship could craft a 21st century immigration plan, but this administration chooses to cage children and tear families apart. Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders.” She continued, “Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders. But we must all embrace that from agriculture to healthcare to entrepreneurship, America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants – not walls.

And in her statement following Trump’s address, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) was even more pointed in denouncing Trump’s intransigence on immigration and the budget: “Instead of bringing us together, [Trump] doubled down on the same old divisive rhetoric and once again sought to pit neighbors against each other. The President was unyielding in his demand for American taxpayers to pay billions to build a wall he promised Mexico would pay for, and he failed to reassure federal workers that their lives wouldn’t be thrown into chaos by another government shutdown.”

Some notes on what Trump glossed over, yet what Democrats are running hard on
Photo by Andrew Davey

As expected, Trump either glossed over or completely brushed aside a slew of critical issues facing the nation, from gun violence to climate change and economic inequality. Abrams, however, took notice: “[T]his White House responds timidly while first graders practice active shooter drills and the price of higher education grows ever steeper. From now on, our leaders must be willing to tackle gun safety measures and the crippling effect of educational loans; to support educators and invest what is necessary to unleash the power of America’s greatest minds.”

On gun violence, the House Judiciary Committee is taking action today by holding Congress’ first hearing on HR 8, one of the federal background checks expansion bills. On climate change, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-New York) tireless advocacy for the “Green New Deal” has resulted in several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates embracing the concept of a massive jobs program that doubles as a relatively rapid transition to 100% renewable electricity. And in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s ignoring of the growing student debt crisis, various Democrats have proposed bills to make college more affordable, from a House Democratic proposal for tuition-free community college to Senator Brian Schatz’s (D-Hawaii) plan to expand need-based grants to eliminate the need for student loans, and Ocasio-Cortez’s plan to forgive all student loan debt and make all public colleges tuition-free.

And then, there’s health care. While Trump obfuscated the harsh reality of high prescription drug costs, he failed to mention his own role in Republicans’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) in 2017, which would have only worsened this already serious problem. Abrams spoke of her own family’s health care struggles during the Democratic response, and Senator Jacky Rosen (D) responded to Trump’s speech by pointing out how Trump’s policies affect Nevadans like Clark County public servant and three-time cancer survivor Tanya Flanagan.

In a statement following Trump’s speech, Rosen said, “While I am glad that the President recognized the millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions who are anxious about their health care, the reality is this Administration continues to sabotage our health care system and undermine the Affordable Care Act, which already protects those with pre-existing conditions, and it is his policies that are putting individuals like Tanya at risk of losing access to affordable care.” Rosen introduced bills to protect patients’ right to know their prescription drug costs while she was in the House, and she’s endorsed legislation to create a Medicaid-style public option for health insurance. 

Clearly, Trump and the Democrats view the state of the union very differently. It’s doubtful that these very divergent takes on America in 2019 will result in a whole lot of legislation becoming (federal) law this year, but at the very least it sets the stage for what promises to be quite the presidential election next year.

Cover photo by Kerri Battles, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Wikimedia.

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