Basking in the immediate afterglow of Donald Trump’s well-crafted, smartly delivered address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, partisan Republicans were apt to either dismiss or mock the Democratic Party’s response. They may soon regret that. In choosing the venue and the figure they did to deliver the unfailingly awkward opposition response to a presidential address, Democrats exhibited a potential willingness to revert to a familiar, persuasive, and politically potent form.
At first blush, former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s response to Trump’s mock State of the Union address was incongruous, jarring, and just optically bizarre. In visual terms alone, the speech, delivered by a septuagenarian white Southerner in a sparsely populated diner in middle America, stood in marked contrast to a Democratic Party that has made a fetish of the presumed nobility of young, female, minority, and urban voters. The coastal, liberal credentialism that has typified the Democratic Party for the last decade was not on display. And that was precisely the point.
For the first time in arguably a generation—since Democrats were compelled by a series of consecutive presidential election cycles to embrace the centrism advocated by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council—Democrats had fully internalized and accepted their outsider status. Of course, any party that has in the space of eight years lost the House, Senate, White House, and over a thousand state-and-legislative-level offices is by definition an outsider party. Democrats have, however, been reluctant so far to lean into their lamentable condition. Elevating in this manner a former governor of a Southern state where Republicans only captured full control of the legislature in 2016 communicated that Democrats—the party of big government—saw themselves as David to the GOP’s Goliath.
The optics of Beshear’s address wasn’t the only disorienting reversal from standard Democratic practice. The speech was a departure, too. Beshear began by accidently calling himself “first and foremost” a “proud Republican, and Democrat, and mostly American.” It was confused and awkward, but honest. In a southern drawl, this representative of the oft-maligned old, white, and male demographic described himself as religious, a veteran, “fiscally responsible,” and faithful to his wife of 50 years.
The former Bluegrass State governor discussed the Democratic Party’s commitment to job growth, vocational training, and providing businesses with “the freedom to innovate.” He quoted Ronald Reagan favorably and chided Trump for inciting ethnic anxiety and “eroding our democracy” by attacking institutions like the courts and the intelligence community. Beshear defended the Affordable Care Act’s goals, not its effects, and criticized Trump for alienating America’s allies abroad while courting its enemies. He defended the enforcement of America’s immigration laws while also admonishing Trump for executing heavy-handed deportation raids that break up families.
This address synthesized the policy objectives of the Warren Wing with the egalitarian moderation of early Bill Clinton. And it was probably effective. “[The] Objective may have been to test what works with Trump voters” without tethering any of the party’s rising stars to that message, speculated the political consultant Liz Mair. She noted that someone somewhere was focus grouping Beshear’s message and it probably scored well.
The former Kentucky governor did, however, strike a profound contrast with the Democratic Party as it exists outside the imaginations of the consultancy class. Just last weekend, the Democrats came within 14 votes of electing a genuinely radical activist progressive in the form of Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison to lead the party’s central committee. They voted instead for the conventional activist progressive, Tom Perez. The party regards Donald Trump as anathema to the point that almost no elected Democrats in the chamber last night dared shake the president’s hand for fear of a backlash from voters in their districts. The marketplace for hyperbolic commentary on the left about the rapid onset of “fascism” is so glutted with supply that the left has missed or dismissed the unprecedented level of resistance this Republican president has encountered from his own party.
It wasn’t merely Republicans who were injudiciously mocking Beshear’s address; it was attacked from the left, too. The humor writer Jason Gilbert put it best: “[Millions of young liberals march with unprecedented passion],” he noted. “DEMS: What if our rebuttal was delivered by Jimmy Dean inside a haunted diner?” His sentiment was echoed by many on the politico-celebrity left. So wedded is this wing of the party to the presumption that Democrats need merely wait for demographic trends to deliver them to the promised land that they think mocking the “mannequins” and “hostages” who populated Beshear’s diner backdrop is wise. It’s not. It’s the mark of a political party that is uncomfortable with the very voters it must court. It is a party committed to the illusory idea of its younger self and is desperately attempting to avoid every mirror to maintain its comfortable delusion.
Donald Trump gave a good speech. Even if he benefits from the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” the praise the president is receiving in the press today is deserved. Recent history suggests that those who see it as a hopeful sign of maturation on the president’s part are going to be disappointed. Still, Democrats would be right to worry about what Trump’s new tone represents, and their frustration with Beshear is a symptom of that condition. Not only does Trump represent a shift in American political evolution, Beshear’s address heralds for urbane, progressive Democrats that a retrogression is in the works. They fear that the current political environment may force them to compromise and make common cause with socially conservative whites in the hinterland. For many on the left, the wilderness is better.