Analysis: Governor Whitmer's State Of The Union Response

Feb 5, 2020

Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. Her response centered on Democrat’s actions on health care, infrastructure, and education—notably departing from commenting on the content of the President’s remarks.

Democrats As “Doers”

Whitmer’s response centered around framing Democrats as “doers,” her 10-minute rebuttal of President Donald Trump’s 82-minute State of the Union address chose not to focus on the partisan rancor that was displayed in the chamber during the speech, but rather Democrat's efforts across the country.

“Instead of talking about what he is saying; I am going to highlight what Democrats are doing. After all, you can listen to what someone says, but to know the truth – watch what they do,” said Whitmer.

The President’s speech appeared to be a split screen between Democrats and Republican’s different perceptions of reality, with Republicans in the chamber chanting “four more years” and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tearing the President’s remarks in half at the conclusion.

Whitmer’s response, in contrast, was a split screen of the two versions of Democratic reality—one where progressives were mired in partisan division on the eve of President Trump’s likely acquittal in his impeachment trial, and the other where moderate Democrats pleaded with the Washington counterparts to focus on kitchen table issues like health care, infrastructure, and education.

She honed in on Democratic Governor’s achievements across the country including: Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s roads multi-billion-dollar roads funding package, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham enshrining protections for the Affordable Care Act into law and Colorado Governor Jared Polis’ institution of all-day Kindergarten.

Pushing Back On “Blue Collar Boom”

Whitmer also presented an alternate view of President Trump’s suggestion of a “blue collar boom.”

“American workers are hurting. In my own state, our neighbors in Wisconsin and Ohio, Pennsylvania and all over the country—wages have stagnated while CEO pay has skyrocketed. So, when the President says ‘the economy is strong.’ My question is: strong for whom?” said Whitmer.

While Michigan is on track to be in its 9th straight year of job growth hiring in manufacturing industries has leveled off.

Response To The Response

John Sellek, who helms the Lansing public relations firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs and ran communications for Governor Whitmer’s erstwhile Republican opponent former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, said Whitmer delivered the speech Democratic leadership had commissioned her to give.

The strategy, he said, was two-tiered: the combustible environment inside the chamber would satiate the progressive caucus, while Whitmer the midwestern, moderate Democrat would quell the anxieties of general Democratic voters.

“That is the goal, that the national Democrats have: of making sure that its general election base feels like there’s still a home for them once there finally is a nominee,” said Sellek.

“In that respect, I don’t think it was any accident that Governor Whitmer didn’t talk about the Washington Democrats getting the job done. She had pointed to many, many state-level examples of why voters from the national Democratic party should stick with the Democrats.”

Annika Doner, Outreach Director for the Democratic advocacy organization Priorities Michigan said she thought Governor Whitmer did a great job.

I loved how it showcased those kitchen table issues that can get kind of overlooked by a lot of sexy issues like impeachment,” said Doner.

Both agreed that Whitmer, ultimately, delivered. State of the Union response speeches can truncate ambitious political trajectories or act a springboard for rising stars. Whitmer’s speech, while it might not blow-up in the long march toward the New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday primaries—it didn’t hurt her, fulfilling what Democratic leadership wanted.

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