Opinion

Opinion | Susan Ryan-Vollmar

Democrats squandered an opportunity

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the Women's March on Washington, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo
Senator Kamala Harris of California (seen here speaking at the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington) was one of several rising stars whom the Democrats overlooked in choosing former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear to deliver a response to President Donal Trump’s address to Congress on Tuesday night.

If anyone still wondered whether there was an established institution in this country strong enough to save us from Donald Trump and his authoritarian impulses, the media hot takes and Democratic response to Trump’s speech last night should put those questions to rest. And just so we’re clear, the answer is no, no one is going to save us.

Last night, Donald Trump delivered a speech full of lies (the Affordable Care Act is “collapsing,” the US is on the verge of becoming a “sanctuary for extremists,” the environment in border states is “lawless chaos”) and he received near unanimous praise from TV media pundits. Describing the moment when Trump recognized the widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, CNN’s Van Jones said, “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.”

Jones added, “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.”

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If the moment was extraordinary, that was because just 24 hours before delivering his speech to Congress, Trump told attendees of the annual meeting of the National Governors Association that the military doesn’t “fight to win” anymore. And on Tuesday morning, during a Fox & Friends interview, Trump blamed Owens’s death on the military. Referring to “the generals” who planned the raid in Yemen, Trump said, “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do. . . . And they lost Ryan.”

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Considering those comments, then yes, Trump’s recognition of Owens’s widow was extraordinary. But how anyone can opine on Trump’s remarks absent this context is mind-boggling.

Much more mind-boggling, though, was the Democratic Party’s official response to Trump’s speech. Staged in a diner and delivered by former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, the nine-minute “rebuttal” was an unmitigated disaster. Introducing himself to the audience, Beshear said: “I am a proud Democrat, but first and foremost, I am a proud Republican, and Democrat and mostly, American.” (He was supposed to say, “I am a proud Democrat, but first and foremost, I’m a proud American.”)

Where, one might ask, were three of the Democratic Party’s rising charismatic politicians they could have called on? Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, or Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey?

Even worse than the bizarre pick of a 72-year-old white guy from Kentucky, though, was the script that Democrats saddled him with. Despite the materials Democrats had to work with — such as the GOP’s insistence on repealing a health care law supported by 54 percent of Americans — Beshear’s rebuttal was boring and forgettable. If this was the best that Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi could come up with, then no one should be looking to current Democratic Party bosses for leadership.

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Trump’s shocking electoral win has sparked a passionate, witty, and engaged opposition: More people turned out to protest Trump’s inauguration than attended it. After Trump’s disastrous executive order on immigration, hundreds of attorneys showed up at airports across the country to offer free legal help to those affected by the ban, and hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country hit the streets to show their support for immigrants and refugees. To say that this energy was missing from the Democratic response would be an understatement.

Last weekend, Democrat Stephanie Hansen won a special election for Delaware’s 10th District Senate seat. She defeated a Republican candidate who had come within two percentage points of victory in 2014. Hansen beat him by 16 points. It was the first swing election held since Nov. 9, and it is fair to say that the people spoke, and spoke loudly.

It’s a lesson for going forward. The media aren’t going to save this country. The Democratic Party isn’t going to save this country. We the people are going to save this country, by insisting on the truth; electing politicians who speak for all of us, not some of us; and refusing to pretend that anything about the Trump presidency is presidential.

Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a communications consultant, was formerly editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and news editor of the Boston Phoenix.