It’s a golden platform with immense pressure and a cursed history.
By accepting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s offer to deliver Democrats’ rebuttal to the State of the Union, former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams on Tuesday will be stepping onto a prime-time stage that could help further turbocharge her national profile.
But she’s also accepted a gig that some of her predecessors acknowledge is more often than not a no-win one.
“Yeah, it’s terrifying,” said Congressman Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., whose rebuttal last year at an auto tech school was remembered mainly because of his glistening lips.
“I’d like to think it wasn’t an end to my political career, but I guess that’s up for you guys to decide,” he recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
While President Donald Trump will have the pageantry of the House chamber – and a crowd of thousands of lawmakers, dignitaries and Supreme Court justices to feed off of – Abrams will have a much smaller room with a camera pointed at her.
Abrams’ performance will be a major test of her political appeal as she mulls whether to challenge Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue next year or perhaps seek a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022.
The position has been a launching pad for rising political stars over the years. It raised the profiles of then-Congressmen Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush before they ran for the presidency. More recently, a trio of GOP women earned positive reviews for their responses to President Barack Obama’s addresses: Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2014, Iowa U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst in 2015 and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in 2016.
McMorris Rodgers’ advice for Abrams was relatively simple.
“I would just encourage her to be herself and just use the opportunity to present a positive vision,” she said.
McMorris Rodgers admitted to feeling the pressure ahead of her speech. Hers came the year after Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio launched thousands of internet memes for an awkwardly-timed water grab in the middle of his remarks. Then-Congressman Paul Ryan, another State of the Union rebuttal veteran, had advised her to suck on a cough drop during her speech to avoid dry mouth, but she decided against it in order to avoid a potential gaffe.
She said the best pointer she received came from then-Speaker John Boehner.
“He said, ‘don’t overthink it and just be yourself and in that moment don’t try to be something that you’re not.’ I really appreciated that,” she said.
Rubio’s words of advice to Abrams were a little more succinct:
“Yes .@staceyabrams hydration is a very good idea. Trust me on this,” he tweeted.
Kennedy had several pointers for Abrams: losing the ChapStick. Having snacks handy in case Trump’s speech runs long. Finding a message she’s passionate about and a venue where she feels comfortable delivering it. (Abrams has not yet announced the location or format of her speech.)
“For me, being able to highlight an aspect of the district I represent and being able to tell a story about the community that I represent in front of an audience I could respond to and interact with was better than trying to give a hostage video for nine minutes,” he said. “Unless you’re Robert De Niro that’s probably a losing battle.”
Abrams hasn’t publicly detailed her plans for the speech, but she admitted at a recent tech conference in California that she was “terrified.”
"Not because I might make a mistake, but because so many want the opportunity to rebut what they've seen over the past few years,” she said, according to Axios. “Trump stands as a proxy for what has gone on by many others for so long ... my responsibility is to not only give voice to those who don't believe they've been seen or heard, but to offer remedies ... and do that all in 10 minutes.”
The White House, meanwhile, announced Trump’s State of the Union theme on Friday: “Choosing Greatness.”
"I really think it's going to be a speech that's going to cover a lot of territory, but part of it's going to be unity," Trump told reporters last week.
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