She began with biography, describing her family whose lack of wealth did not spare them from the obligation of helping those less fortunate. Her emphasis was on themes that conservatives used to appreciate — community, faith and family. “My family understood firsthand that while success is not guaranteed, we live in a nation where opportunity is possible,” she said. “But we do not succeed alone — in these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbors will come for us. Our first responders will come for us.” Ironically, Trump’s speech was largely about what the government is doing for others, while hers stressed what Americans do for each other.
She did not hold back, lambasting Trump for the government shutdown, and made the contrast with her own values. “Just a few weeks ago, I joined volunteers to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers,” she said. “They waited in line for a box of food and a sliver of hope since they hadn’t received a paycheck in weeks.” Then she lowered the boom: “Making their livelihoods a pawn for political games is a disgrace. The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our values.”
She stressed education, something Trump largely ignored during his address. (“Children deserve an excellent education from cradle to career. We owe them safe schools and the highest standards, regardless of Zip code.” Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice often uses the same formulation.)
Abrams slapped at the Republicans for making life harder for ordinary people — refusing to address gun-safety laws, giving tax breaks to corporations, ensnaring workers in a trade war, and caging children. (“Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders. President [Ronald] Reagan understood this.”) She castigated the GOP for dismantling the Affordable Care Act, and enacting measures that suppress minority votes. (“Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real. From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”)
She did not spare Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had declared that voting reform amounted to a “power grab.” (“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country. We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counter is a ‘power grab.’ ”)
Her delivery was snappy and her theme upbeat. “In this time of division and crisis, we must come together and stand for, and with, one another. America has stumbled time and again on its quest towards justice and equality; but with each generation, we have revisited our fundamental truths, and where we falter, we make amends.” Abrams vowed that “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. That is who we are — and when we do so, never wavering — the state of our union will always be strong.”
While she gave a nod to progressive issues such as LGBTQ rights and abortion rights, what was striking about her speech was her emphasis on opportunity, community and shared responsibility. More often than not, her complaint was that government was getting in the way of the progress of average Americans. That used to be how Republicans spoke. Democrats, if they are smart, will snatch the “values” issue back from the GOP.
Abrams is not a candidate for president in 2020, but she might make the short list for vice president. She’s a fresh face, but more important, a real talent who is both personally engaging and pitch perfect for an electorate tired of hearing a windbag president demonize immigrants for the umpteenth time.
She suggests a new model for the Democratic Party — where diversity is a given, but the commitment is to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, leaving no one behind. Media coverage stressed her role as a first — the first African American woman to deliver a response to the State of the Union — but that doesn’t capture what was truly unique about her remarks. Responding to the State of the Union is a thankless task, but Abrams was arguably the only successful one in recent memory. And she was brief. God bless her for that.