President Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address was unlike anything the House chamber has witnessed in the past. The president came into the room, clearly aware that the raucous caucus had been honing their heckling skills, and intended to demolish any sense of decorum left around this occasion. But rather than walking through a rote speech and trying to get past the catcalls from the wings, Biden took the Republicans head on, forcing them to disavow their own policies, swear allegiance to Social Security, and in general, making them look silly, immature, and vastly outplayed. It was masterful.
Against that background, as while Biden was still in the House, shaking hands, smiling, and enjoying himself, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders had the unenviable task of giving the official Republican response. Why Sanders? Anyone watching on PBS last night learned from commentators that, in most years, the job went to “a rising star” in the party, someone who was expected to run for higher office in coming cycles. However, this year it was going to Sanders because … no, they didn’t know, either.
Past seasons of the Republican response have brought America some great moments. There was Bobby Jindal lurching into view out of the darkness on his way to enlivening a thousand “Kenneth the page” memes. And who can forget Marco Rubio making a panic dive for his water bottle? Could Donald Trump’s former press secretary live down to these past performances and earn herself a face on the side of Mt. Why-do-we-do-this? The answer is an emphatic “yes.”
To avoid Jindal’s Frankensteinian shuffle to the microphone and the sheer bother of standing up for more than a couple of minutes, Sanders began her speech already slouched in a chair and didn’t stir during her thankfully brief (less than 15 minutes) “rebuttal” to Biden’s intense and skillful performance.
But the big problem for Sanders wasn’t her appearance; it was her content. Rather than actually talking about any of the subjects that Biden had addressed in her speech to the nation, or anything like … oh, trivial things such as health care, the economy, human rights, foreign policy, the environment, energy, etc., Sanders instead decided to devote her time to talking about how Biden “surrendered his presidency to the woke mob” and the left is “waging war on America.” It’s a war that, according to Sanders, Republicans didn’t want. They just had to fight it. Because Democrats kept arguing for freedom and democracy and equal rights and stuff.
In short: Sanders took the largest national audience she is ever likely to have, and blew it on a speech that will sway not one—not one—voter to Republican positions. Hell, she didn’t even name any Republican positions, unless those positions are just informing everyone that America is so over. Also, there was praise for Donald Trump, which has to excite the long list of Republican candidates who will be running against Trump in about a hot minute.
Speaking of Trump, he wasn’t about to let the night pass without a response of his own, a response you could watch live on Newsmax TV, which I understand is available somewhere on the dark web.
The best thing that can be said about Trump’s reply is this: It’s two minutes long. Exactly two minutes long. Like it was meant to be a campaign commercial two minutes long. In that time, you get exactly what you would expect “millions and millions of illegal aliens,” drug cartels, lies about “savage killers” and the “highest crime rate in history,” a claim that we’re on “the brink of World War III,” and … hey, what do you know. It is a campaign commercial that ends with Trump reminding everyone that he’s running for Biggest Loser of 2024.
Following the pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union address is always hard. But maybe the best thing about last night is that Biden largely did away with the pomp. He delivered the most conversational, the most comfortable, the most confident State of the Union address in living memory, one that wasn’t laced through with Great Oratory™, but which spoke directly to his belief that America is great when it’s fair.
And now, in honor of Sanders’ speech on how “the left” dragged oh-so-reluctant Republicans kicking and screaming into this culture war, here’s a speech from a year ago that deserves a wider audience than the one Sanders got last night.