Today is the State of the Union, that special time of year when the president goes before Congress, reads the magnum opus of a crew of political speechwriters, and then everyone immediately forgets what he talked about. Following that will be the State of the Union response by the Democrats—which, I’m afraid to report, has already become a proxy for 2020.
This year, the Democrats decided to go with a living, breathing human rather than the mayor of a ghost diner or a store-brand Kennedy, and selected Stacey Abrams to give the English-language response. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will give the official Spanish-language response.
It’s an all-around great pick: Abrams—the dynamic former Georgia House minority leader who likely would’ve become the first black woman to be elected governor in America if Georgia had anything like free and fair elections—is a top recruit for Senate Democrats in 2020. She’s also well-liked by both wings of the party, and has a bone to pick with President Donald Trump. You really couldn’t ask for more out of a response to this spectacle of bloviation; as long as Abrams doesn’t fall down in the middle of the speech, it’ll likely be the best one of these things we’ve seen in years.
Abrams won’t be the only one giving a response, though. For the third year in a row, Sen. Bernie Sanders is giving his own livestreamed response after the official Democratic one.
This is being perceived as a slight towards Abrams, whom Sanders endorsed during her primary race for governor.
Part of the frustration stemmed from an apparent error on the part of The Hill in its early reporting, which said that Sanders would be delivering his response at the same time as Abrams. (It was later changed with no correction.) If Sanders had done that, it would have been truly stupid on both a political and practical level.
Sanders, however, is not doing that.
Abrams’ speech will be carried live on every network and cable news channel. Following that, people who really want to hear Sanders give a variation of the same thing he’s been saying for 40 years can go to his streaming channels and watch him do that. This is not a new thing, either. There were five responses after last year’s State of the Union: the official ones from Rep. Joe Kennedy and Virginia state Del. Elizabeth Guzman, one from Sanders, another on BET from Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and another by former Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards.
As progressive Atlanta activist Anoa Changa pointed out on Twitter, an additional response from the Democratic left was more necessary the last two years than it is today, simply because Abrams herself is on the Democratic left. And you would hope that, given Sanders’ failings in the South during the 2016 primary, the Vermont senator would go to great lengths to avoid anything that would remotely spark the criticism that he’s trying to compete for air and press coverage with a progressive black woman from Georgia. Sanders will never be able to please a significant portion of the people criticizing him for this, but his apparent inability to anticipate that criticism indicates there’s still a lot of work to be done for him to build a successful coalition—one which will have to include much better numbers in the South and among black voters older than millennials if he’s to stand any chance of winning.
At its core, however, this is a controversy that appears to exist wholly on the internet. Abrams and Sanders are political allies, and ultimately, none of this matters. No one cares about the State of the Union. Everyone immediately forgets about it because Congress doesn’t listen to the president, and historically, even fewer people remember the State of the Union responses unless something dumb or weird happens, like Marco Rubio getting thirsty or Joe Kennedy’s lip oozing some kind of weird sauce. Hopefully Abrams bucks that trend, and this marks the start of a long, successful national political career. Either way, it’s going to be exponentially more watchable than any State of the Union response in years.
In no way will Sanders steal the spotlight from Abrams. Even if unrelenting cynicism is his secret driving motivator behind doing this response after Abrams, he can’t and won’t be able to compete with someone who has an audience of most of America tonight. If this bewildering episode is any indication, though, get ready: 2020 is going to be even worse than 2016.
Update, 11:10 a.m. ET: Lol.