The state of the Democratic opposition is strong. Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office only a little more than a year ago, but she is a rising star in a critical swing state. The New York Times observed recently that she “speaks about compromise and bipartisanship, and sometimes sounds more like a political moderate” than a Democratic firebrand. It is not surprising, then, that she was given the task of responding to President Trump’s State of the Union address.
She smartly decided not to respond to what Trump said: “I’d need a lot more than 10 minutes to respond to what the president just said. So instead of talking about what he is saying; I am going to highlight what Democrats are doing," she said. "After all, you can listen to what someone says, but to know the truth — watch what they do.”
She succeeded in part because she seemed so normal, so decent, and because she focused on her own life experience, the struggles of a middle-class mom who, unlike a clueless real estate mogul, understands voters’ lives. She recalled, “I was holding down a new job, caring for my newborn daughter as well as my mom at the end of her brain cancer battle. I was up all night with a baby and during the day, I had to fight my mom’s insurance company when they wrongly denied her coverage for chemotherapy.” She went on: “It was hard. It exposed the harsh realities of our workplaces, our health-care system, and our child-care system. And it changed me. I lost my patience for people who play games instead of solve problems.” (This echoed the career-changing experience of Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic senator from Minnesota, when she was kicked out of the hospital before her newborn could be released because of health complications. She, too, says she was then motivated to get into politics to address health care.) In other words, Whitmer made clear that Democrats are of and for the middle class.
After Trump’s interminable and bombastic self-congratulations (filled with exaggerations and falsehoods) in a campaign rally atmosphere, Whitmer brought the conversation back to Earth and focused on ordinary Americans’ concerns. Instead of a reality-show carnival, she offered a paean to normalcy and reality.
“It’s pretty simple,” she said. “Democrats are trying to make your health care better. Republicans in Washington are trying to take it away." Instead of the top-line numbers, she focused on the people who don’t own stocks. “It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market. What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans or prescription drugs,” she said. If Trump declares that the economy is “working,” Democrats will respond, “But who is it working for?”
In the most effective section of her speech, she told the audience:
The American economy needs to be a different kind of strong. Strong for the science teacher spending her own money to buy supplies for her classroom. Strong for the single mom picking up extra hours so she can afford her daughter’s soccer cleats. Strong for the small business owner who has to make payroll at the end of the month. Michigan invented the middle class. So, we know — if the economy doesn’t work for working people, it just doesn’t work.Who fights for hardworking Americans? Democrats do.
Whitmer also made a regional appeal to the Midwest, which just so happens to be where the 2020 election may be decided. In the midst of a manufacturing slump, she argued, “American workers are hurting. In my own state. Our neighbors in Wisconsin. And Ohio. And Pennsylvania. All over the country. Wages have stagnated, while CEO pay has skyrocketed.”
She also reached out to younger voters, who dislike Trump by overwhelming margins. “They respond to mass shootings demanding policies that make schools safer,” she said. “They react to a world that’s literally on fire with fire in their bellies. To push leaders to finally take action on climate change.”
In her remarks, you could clearly see the outlines of the Democrats’ 2020 message focused on health care, income inequality, education, guns and climate change. These are the bread-and-butter issues that many moderates used to flip House seats in 2018. They also seem well-aimed at suburban women voters, a group that may determine the election outcome. Along the way, Whitmer managed to slam the Republican Senate, highlighting its obstruction and inactivity as 275 bipartisan bills passed in the House are “just gathering dust on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk." She declared, “Senator McConnell, America needs you to move those bills.”
Whitmer closed with a reference to impeachment and the Trumpian lie-fest the country had just witnessed. “As we witness the impeachment process in Washington, there are some things each of us — no matter our party — should demand. The truth matters. Facts matter. And no one should be above the law. It’s not what those senators say — tomorrow, it’s what they do that matters.”
What Democrats still need is a pithy unifying message and a messenger as effective, likable and calm as Whitmer at the top of the ticket in 2020. They will need both to flip the Senate majority and win back the White House.