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Gretchen Whitmer’s smart, boring speech highlighted Democrats’ biggest 2020 dilemma

How do you tune out the Trump Show and talk about real issues?

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a General Motors Detroit assembly plant on January 27, 2020.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer probably made a smart choice by trying to give an earnest policy speech in her response to the State of the Union address, rather than one addressing the president’s crimes or the blood-soaked demagoguery of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Trump’s speech Tuesday night.

The problem is that it was also a boring speech.

The logic behind Whitmer’s approach is the great paradox of the Trump era. Over the past couple of months, when Trump’s been mired in scandal and impeached in Congress, his approval ratings have actually been relatively strong his low point came in the fall and winter of 2017, when political media was mostly focused on Republican legislation on health care and taxes.

All of Trump’s antics and scandals don’t exactly help him politically. His approval rating at this point in his presidency is lower than what Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan enjoyed. But it’s policy issues that seem to have the power to really sink him.

Those issues are what Whitmer focused on in her speech, observing that congressional Democrats aren’t just investigating Trump. They’re passing bills.

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats passed a landmark bill on equal pay,” she said, “another bill to give 30 million Americans a raise by increasing the minimum wage, and groundbreaking legislation to finally give Medicare the power to negotiate lower drug prices for America’s seniors and families.”

This is all true. She shouted out state-level initiatives, including overtime pay rights in Pennsylvania and Michigan, teacher pay increases in Nevada and North Carolina, all-day kindergarten in Colorado, and a school funding hike in Wisconsin, that show what Democrats can do when they’re allowed to govern.

And she observed, accurately, that despite the squabbling in the Democratic presidential primary, all the candidates’ health plans are directionally the same — offering Americans better, more robustly subsidized coverage — while Trump is suing to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.

In theory, this is absolutely the right message for Democrats: They are going to help you and your family in tangible ways rather than get sucked into a culture war food fight with Trump.

The problem is the speech was so boring that I was tempted not to write about it at all. But as someone who strongly believes that treating Trump as a more-or-less “normal” Republican politician is the best way to beat him, I have an obligation not to just tune Democrats out when they try.

That, though, is easier said than done. Trump has such a larger-than-life personality and is so skilled at pushing people’s buttons that following a speech full of reality show antics (a live medal presentation to Rush Limbaugh!) with an earnest discussion of why his paid family leave plan is grossly inadequate compared to Democrats’ plans for leave and a child allowance ends up seeming gray and sad.

I generally believe that moderates do better in elections, but this is one reason the “electability” calculus in 2020 is a bit more complicated. Most Democrats just loathe Trump and everything he stands for on an instinctual level. There’s a reason House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped his speech up.

But the Electoral College margin is going to be won and lost on the backs of voters who don’t feel that way about Trump, but who might disagree with him nonetheless about health care, the minimum wage, or the right to an abortion. (A lot of people are under the impression that swing voters are dead and modern elections are all won through mobilization these days, but it’s not true.)

The challenge for Democrats this fall is to find a better way to execute on Whitmer’s basic plan: talk about real stuff, not the Trump Show, but make it interesting enough that people will want to watch, quote, and share what they have to say.