Stacey Abrams broke the curse of the disastrous rebuttal

Poised and self-possessed.
Poised and self-possessed.
Image: Reuters/ Reuters TV
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Stacey Abrams proved Tuesday that it’s possible for a State of the Union rebuttal to be a success.

The former Georgia gubernatorial candidate’s impeccable delivery of Democrats’ qualms about the Trump presidency was in sharp contrast to a series of spectacular failures by both Republicans and Democrats assigned to the task in previous years.

On the Republican side, there was Bobby Jindal in 2009. The then governor of Louisiana’s speech “read a lot better than it sounded,” in Fox News’ appraisal. A couple of years later, Michele Bachmann, a US representative from Minnesota, looked at the wrong camera during the live broadcast of her remarks. Then in 2013, senator Marco Rubio, from Florida, showed Americans the power of a poorly timed sip of water.

Democrats have had their misses, too. Last year, Joe Kennedy’s speech went unnoticed as the audience wondered about the excess of chapstick on his lips.

Abrams, meanwhile, was poised, self-possessed, and poignant. In her speech, she mentioned a slew of key issues that Donald Trump skipped in his address. She talked about the government shutdown, which she said made “the livelihoods of our federal workers a pawn for political games,” and about the importance of calling out racists and racist actions. She criticized the White House’s tepid approach to gun control, and brought up its policies of separating immigrant children from their parents, as well as the scourge of maternal mortality.

She didn’t shy away from commenting on voter suppression, which might have tipped the result of her gubernatorial race last November in favor of her opponent. ”Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” she said. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls, to losing and closing polling places, to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”

“The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters,” she added. 

Abrams also spoke of unity and bipartisanship—which was supposed to be the focus of the State of the Union she was rebutting. After encouraging bipartisanship, Trump reverted to his usual partisan and confrontational tone.

Though she pushed her party’s agenda, overall Abrams sounded decidedly more civil and conciliatory. She talked about her time at the Georgia House of Representatives, where Democrats came together with Republicans to work on criminal justice reform. She also told the president, in so many words, that Democrats are not out to get him. “Even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems, I still don’t want him to fail,” she said.

She touched again on the unity theme in her closing remarks:

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. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Abrams was an unusual pick for the rebuttal. She is the first black woman, as well as the first person not currently holding office, to deliver it. Given her success, perhaps Democrats—and Republicans—should consider more speakers like her in the future.