Steve Beshear
Credit: C-SPAN/Screengrab

The fawning among political pundits over President Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday buried the seemingly unanimous view that former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear spectacularly bungled his attempt at the Democratic response to Trump’s speech. On MSNBC, Steve Schmidt blasted Beshear’s speech as “just amazing ineptitude for a party out of power.”

Granted, Beshear is the antithesis of the ascendant resistance to Trump cobbled together by Democrats: he’s an elderly white guy with a pungent Southern drawl. And as Democrats make gains across the Sun Belt, Appalachian Kentucky is the farthest thing from the epicenter of the party’s new battleground. Still, as the governor who presided over Obamacare’s most compelling success story, he might just have been the perfect choice to undermine Trump and the GOP while they’re still intoxicated with their newfound power.

Clearly, there’s a case to be made that Democrats, plagued by a thin bench, should have awarded the privilege of a nationally-televised speech to one of the party’s rising stars: Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Keith Ellison, for example, are people of color who can speak on behalf of the minority groups Trump has vilified; Pete Buttigieg and Jason Kander are young Midwestern veterans who can appeal to the voters Hillary lost across the Rust Belt.

Beshear said and did little to quell the liberal disappointment that the speaker wasn’t someone more electrifying. His mangled introduction was cringe-worthy: “I’m a proud Democrat, but first and foremost, I’m a proud Republican, and Democrat, and mostly, American.” And the optics of the whole speech were genuinely confounding, with Beshear perched in the foreground of a poorly-lit diner, dozens of Kentuckians awkwardly sitting behind him and mustering the willpower to remain still.

Cinematography aside, State of the Union responses — which this was, for all intents and purposes — are inherently tricky, maybe quixotically so, since the minority party has to pen a response before the president has actually delivered his speech. The list of past politicians to deliver State of the Union responses is a graveyard of failed presidential ambitions. (Remember Marco Rubio’s water bottle incident from 2013? Or Bobby Jindal’s awkward walk towards the camera in 2009?)

In choosing Beshear, Democrats understood that, statistically, State of the Union watchers are disproportionately the president’s supporters. Heightened political polarization has seeped into the president’s public speeches, found researchers Samuel Kernell and Laurie Rice: “Modern presidents thus find themselves increasingly preaching to their party choir and losing the capacity to influence public opinion more broadly.”

Instead of laying the groundwork for 2020, Democrats went straight for the GOP’s jugular on Obamacare, a move that could immediately begin to reap political benefits for the party. The GOP is sweating from the political costs of repealing the Affordable Care Act; now that they own the law, Republicans are coming to the obvious realization that, as Trump said earlier this week, it’s “unbelievably complex.” Public support for Obamacare has soared to a record high — higher, in fact, than that of the flailing President. Under pressure from angry Obamacare supporters at town halls, Republicans seem to have changed their promise to “repeal and replace” the law into a more nebulous promise to “repair” it. John Boehner, freed from the politician’s shackles, understands the conundrum that his party is facing:

All this happy talk that went on in November and December and January about repeal, repeal, repeal—yeah, we’ll do replace, replace—I started laughing, because if you pass repeal without replace, first, anything that happens is your fault. You broke it.

Steve Beshear is precisely the guy to hit the GOP where it hurts on Obamacare — which is exactly what he did, reiterating that Obamacare enrollees in his state are “not aliens from some distant planet. They’re our friends and our neighbors.” Under Beshear’s leadership, Kentucky expanded Medicaid and set up its own state exchange that was ingeniously branded as Kynect, distancing it from the president and seething conservative anger at big-government reform. The uninsured rate in Kentucky plummeted from 20.4 percent in 2013 to 7.5 percent in 2015, among the largest drops nationwide.


Trump, of course, trounced Hillary in Kentucky in November, jeopardizing health care coverage for hundreds of thousands in the state. Visiting rural Kentucky after the election, Vox healthcare guru Sarah Cliff wrote, “I kept hearing informed voters, who had watched the election closely, say they did hear the promise of repeal but simply felt Trump couldn’t repeal a law that had done so much good for them.”

There’s a major Obamacare fight looming in the coming months, and Steve Beasher’s response to the president — for all his quirks and the less-than-stellar optics — could start to erode GOP hegemony. Democrats have their backs against the wall, and they’ve smartly calculated that the quickest way for them to recover is not by jumpstarting the 2020 campaign, but by convincing marginal Trump supporters that the party of Steve Beshear, not the billionaire president, ultimately has their back.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Saahil Desai

Follow Saahil on Twitter @Saahil_Desai. Saahil Desai is a politics editor at the Atlantic. He was digital editor at the Washington Monthly from 2016 to 2018.