Stacey Abrams Is the SOTU Responder We’ve Been Waiting For
The State of the Union response is one of the toughest speeches to give.
It’s late. We have all just listened to a long speech. (And if it was by President Clinton — the former, not the should-be — a really long speech.) We might have heard some stuff we agreed with, some stuff we hated. There was applauding. And, occasionally, standing ovations. And, less occasionally, thankfully, heckling.
Then comes the response. When the minority party tears the American people away from Rachel Maddow or whoever the Rachel Maddow-equivalent is on Fox. (Not that there can be a match for Maddow. Especially on Fox. But I digress.)
The speaker, a political rising star, stands at a podium. Or sits in a room alone. Or sits in a random diner with a bunch of people who are trying to muster enthusiasm at that late hour. (I couldn’t.) At any rate, the setting never matches the grandeur of the Capitol. (It couldn’t.)
They stare into the camera waiting for their cue. Even though, for a few awkward seconds, in awkward silence, they’re already awkwardly up on our screens. And then they give a speech.
The speech is normally written before anyone knows what the President was going to say. Although, for the most part, that’s easy enough to guess. It is normally partisan, because it kind of has to be. Especially in an election year. Which is now every year. And it normally includes a laundry list of issues, but it absolutely doesn’t have to. (Note to future SOTU responders: If the audience can respond to your lines with “check!” it’s time to revise.)
Now, don’t get me wrong, some of these speeches have been really good. Good structure. Good stories. Good rhetoric. But we don’t remember any of that. (Fellow speechwriters, forgive me.) At most, we remember the gaffes. The tiny water bottle guzzled. The chapstick applied. It’s really a shame that Rep. Joe Kennedy’s speech was overshadowed — or, outshined — because it was really good.
But this year is different. Because this year Stacey Abrams is delivering the response. And she is awesome. (And not just because she contributed to my upcoming book, Why I Run: 35 Progressive Candidates Who Are Changing Politics, coming out March 12 and available now for preorder.)
Abrams doesn’t have to fight to get our attention. She already has it.
And come to think of it, that’s pretty surprising. After all, she didn’t win in Georgia in 2018. (Or, more accurately, democracy didn’t win in Georgia in 2018.) By now, she should be a footnote. But she is a headline. She’s a headliner for the Democratic Party. And that’s because, even though she lost in 2018, she stirred up enthusiasm that carried the party to victory in 2018.
In my upcoming book, Why I Run, Abrams writes about what she learned as she ran for governor. She sums it up like this: “Georgians don’t have to soften our commitment to equality and opportunity to win. We just have to be architects of real, bold solutions. We just have to show that our elected leaders can, at their best, bring people together to help one another.”
Replace the word “Georgians” with “Americans,” and I think Democrats have a pretty solid strategy for winning the 2020 presidential election. And beyond. (Abrams 2028, anyone?)
These aren’t just words on a page for Abrams. Time and again, she has made them real through action.
Perhaps the best example is one Abrams mentioned often on the campaign trail. When she found out that more than 800,000 people of color in Georgia were not registered to vote, she didn’t just talk about it, she did something about it. She started the New Georgia Project, which has registered more than 200,000 people of color.
Abrams takes voter suppression seriously, because she knows what it feels like to be shut out. There’s a story she tells in my upcoming book, Why I Run — (Have I mentioned it yet? No? Here’s the link.) — about when she was seventeen and the valedictorian of her high school class and she was invited to the governor’s mansion. When she got to the gates, the guard said, “No. This is a private event. You’re not allowed. You don’t belong.”
Her mom and dad had a “vigorous discussion” with the guard. Eventually he let Abrams in.
Abrams said that she will never forget what it was like to be told she wasn’t allowed to go through those gates. And I’ll bet she will never forget what it was like to have those gates closed to her again last year.
But Abrams knows — and, importantly, we know — that this moment is bigger than any one person. This is about swinging the proverbial gates open for everyone. Especially when we have a President who likes shutting things down and shutting people out.
So, this year, you have my permission to skip the President’s remarks (which delights me to say), to skip the Maddow musings (which pains me to say), and to skip the Sanders sanctimony (which irritates me to say, I mean, seriously?).
But tune in for the Democratic response. It’ll be a response worth watching. I promise. Because Stacey Abrams knows more, and cares more, about the state of our union than President Trump ever will.