What former Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear showed last night when he delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s joint address to Congress is that the Democratic Party is in deep trouble. Sure, he comes off as a likable grandfather figure. He spoke about how it is wrong to repeal and replace Obamacare, roll back regulations that make it harder for families to buy homes, and imbrue American values by leading a de facto (and non-existent) war on immigrants.
Look, I may be old-fashioned, but I still believe that dignity, compassion, honesty and accountability are basic American values. And as a Democrat, I believe that if you work hard, you deserve the opportunity to realize the American dream, regardless of whether you’re a coal miner in Kentucky, a teacher in Rhode Island, an autoworker in Detroit or a software engineer in San Antonio.
Our political system is broken. It’s broken because too many of our leaders think it’s all about them. They need to remember that they work for us and helping us is their work.
Kentucky made real progress while I was governor because we were motivated by one thing: helping families. Democrats are trying to bring that same focus back to Washington, D.C. Americans are a diverse people. And we may disagree on a lot of things, but we’ve always come together when we remember that we are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Wait, the Dem response is from a former governor who was replaced by a Republican?— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) March 1, 2017
This Steve Beshear response is a fiasco.— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) March 1, 2017
Could the Democrats really not find a better, more relevant messenger than a *former* governor. No leadership bench at all.— Jeremy W. Peters (@jwpetersNYT) March 1, 2017
Why is Beshear sitting in a diner with no food, no drinks, no nothing, with more than a dozen people -- all white -- behind him?— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) March 1, 2017
The speech was rather soporific. The setting was weird. And Beshear’s opening remarks went off the rails as well. He said, "I'm a proud Democrat, but first and foremost I'm a proud Republican and Democrat and mostly American." Come again, governor?
Look, I get why Democrats picked Beshear. He’s from a red state, he’s from a small town, he was elected and re-elected with 55+ percent of the vote in said red state, and he’s far from the Washington Beltway. He also wrote an op-ed about how the Democrats were more or less sucking. Beshear encapsulates the problems that are plaguing Democrats: the need to reclaim lost ground in rural American and winning back enough white working class voters in order to retake Congress, the presidency, and state legislature seats. Yet, let’s not forget he’s a former Democratic governor. Republican Matt Bevin succeeded him, which sort of undercuts the reasons for why Beshear should be delivering this rebuttal. It also highlights the lack of depth among Democrats regarding their candidate bench post-Clinton/Obama. It’s quite dismal.
Oh, and how did Democrats fare in Kentucky under the Beshear-Obama era? Well, not so great. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) was quick to point out that Democrats collapsed in the state, just like how they crumbled across the board nationally under Obama:
- Flipped the Kentucky House for the first time in 95 years in 2016.
- Defeated the Speaker of the House, Greg Stumbo, who had been in office since 1980.
- Secured a supermajority in the Kentucky House in 2016 with a 64-36 makeup, its largest GOP House majority in state history. When Obama took office, Democrats held a 65-35 supermajority.
- Flipped almost 1,000 state legislative seats from blue to red, including 34 seats picked up across Kentucky’s two chambers.
- Grown its number of trifectas – states with a GOP governor, state House and state Senate majorities – to 25, thanks to Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s victory in 2015 and the state House flipping to a GOP majority, joining the state Senate, in 2016. Democrats only have five trifectas.
- Flipped the office of Kentucky governor, lieutenant governor, auditor and treasurer, giving Republicans five of the seven statewide executive offices. Following the 2011 elections, Democrats controlled six of the seven.
That’s the sort of tragicomic aspect of this response. The people that Democrats need to win back are right there on the screen for all to see, but they picked a former governor who hastened the erosion of his party in the Bluegrass State as a vessel to convey the message that there are still Democrats left in rural America. Some on the Left might use this as a reason to shun white voters further, noting that the demographic advantages of the cities will soon overwhelm the Republican voters, so why even bother with this outreach effort. That’s a dubious claim and one that didn’t work out in 2016. Moreover, without a deep bench of candidates that could produce the Obama-style turnout of 2008 and 2012, something that I don’t think will ever happen again for some time—Democrats don’t have anyone to rally to do a lot of saber rattling. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is a darling of the far left, but her appeal will not resonate past New England.
Also, there were other Democrats to choose from that live in battleground areas. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who challenged Nancy Pelosi for the House leadership could have been a good choice, maybe even Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ran for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and was endorsed by Howard Dean, could have been an option. With Beshear, it’s obvious that Democrats weren’t considering name recognition in their criteria.
The fact is that the people in that diner sitting with Beshear are the voters who Democrats need to win back to reclaim lost ground, but the problem is that many of them in the rural areas have already become Republicans, they love Trump, and the more the urban-based elites tell working class folks that they’re the problem, that they’re racist, and that they’re deplorable—the more entrenched their support for the president becomes. It’s already happening. They also want to keep to their uber-left agenda of safe spaces, speech codes, Black Lives Matter, abortion, and transgender bathrooms. The people behind Beshear care about jobs and economic growth; fighting for a trans man or trans woman to use a public bathroom won’t accomplish that. Concerning how the Democrats are defined (coastal, urban, and insufferable), I doubt that economic messaging will take precedence. One-third of the 198 Democratic House members come from Massachusetts, California, and New York--and these folks couldn't care less about the diner folk in the background.
Beshear is an old white guy, and Democrats need the old white guy vote to make some headway in the 2018 and 2020 elections. So far, if this is an attempt at outreach to white working class voters who used to be the backbone of the Democratic Party—it was a huge misfire. It's better to have a sitting governor, representative, senator, etc. who is an ascending star in the party. Yet, the road out of this political wilderness Democrats find themselves in is through people like Beshear. Talk about jobs, the economy, and maybe pension protections and things could get interesting. Again, the question is whether Democrats want to put the issues that the predominantly nonwhite voter base in the cities resonates with on the back burner. There is no guarantee that white working class voters will flock back to the Democrats. It’s a debate for the party to have, one that will probably be messy—but the other route, which essentially is the “wait and die” initiative, will take time. And the Democratic base doesn’t appear to be patient when it comes to taking on the Trump White House, even if their representatives in Congress admit that they lack the resources and the numbers to block the president. The fact that they had to unearth a former governor, who has been out of power, to deliver this speech is a sign that the Democratic talent pool is quite small. This is what happens when the other party controls 69/99 state legislatures, Congress, and two-thirds of the governorships.
Yet, there have been other awkward performances, like Bill Clinton's 1985 rebuttal to Ronald Reagan. So, don't feel too bad, Mr. Beshear.