In her official Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s meandering State of the Union Speech on Tuesday night, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer only said his name twice.
Speaking at East Lansing High School — where her two daughters attend — to a crowd of roughly 300 lawmakers, friends and supporters, Whitmer instead focused on an economy that works for everyone, expanding health care and yes, her main 2018 campaign theme of “fixing the damn roads.”
While talking about the importance of fixing roads and bridges, Whitmer worked in a dig against Trump, although not by name: “Bullying people on Twitter doesn’t fix bridges — it burns them,” she said.
(She also managed to work in a subtle joke about the famously victory-challenged Detroit Lions).
Whitmer made the case for Democrats in the 2020 election as the party of action, while also subtly questioning Trump’s trustworthiness. She has been mentioned as a vice presidential pick by several pundits, given her strong 2018 victory and the significance of Michigan in this election. However, earlier on Tuesday, she again ruled out the possibility in a roundtable with reporters.
Toward the beginning of her 10-minute speech, Whitmer said that “instead of talking about what [Trump] is saying; I am going to highlight what Democrats are doing. After all, you can listen to what someone says, but to know the truth — watch what they do.”
She knocked Trump and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for failing to take action, noting the almost 300 bills passed by the Democratic U.S. House sitting on the Republican leader’s desk, including bills for equal pay, a minimum wage increase and lower drug prices.
Whitmer also hit on a theme that Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist did before her speech of the dire importance of the next election and fighting back against Trump’s divisiveness.
“We — and all Americans — might be weary of today’s politics, but we must stay engaged,” she said. “Our country; our democracy; our future demand it. We are capable of great things when we work together. We cannot forget that despite the dishonesty and division of the last few years, and that we heard from the president of the United States tonight, together — we have boundless potential.”
And she offered a sharp contrast from Trump’s speech, which featured rants about immigration, the border wall and crime.
“We want your water to be clean,” Whitmer said. “We want you to love who you love, and to live authentically, as your true selves. We want women to have autonomy over their own bodies. We want our country welcoming, And everyone’s vote counted.”
When it came to health care, Whitmer made a personal case, talking about juggling care for both her baby and her mother dying of brain cancer as a young lawmaker.
“I was up all night with a baby and during the day, I had to fight my mom’s insurance company when they wrongly denied her coverage for chemotherapy,” she said. “It was hard. It exposed the harsh realities of our workplaces, our health care system and our child care system. And it changed me. I lost patience for people who are just talk and no action.”
Whitmer’s speech came as the results of the Democrats’ Iowa presidential caucuses still were unclear. She took the opportunity to draw distinctions between her party and Republicans on health care, without playing favorites.
“Every Democrat running for president has a plan to expand health coverage for all Americans,” she said. “Every one of them has supported the Affordable Care Act with coverage for people with preexisting conditions. They may have different plans, but the goal is the same.”
The Democrat noted that she helped get the Medicaid expansion passed in Michigan while serving as Senate minority leader during the tenure of GOP now-former Gov. Rick Snyder. And she stressed the need for reproductive health care after Trump’s anti-abortion address.
While Trump devoted much of the beginning of his speech to celebrating the economy, especially for blue-collar workers, Whitmer noted that many people who aren’t at the top are still struggling.
“American workers are hurting,” she said. “In my own state. Our neighbors in Wisconsin. And Ohio. And Pennsylvania. All over the country. Wages have stagnated, while CEO pay has skyrocketed.
“So when the President says the economy is strong, my question is: strong for whom?” Whitmer continued. “Strong for the wealthy, who are reaping the rewards from tax cuts they don’t need? The American economy needs to be a different kind of strong. Strong for the science teacher spending her own money to buy supplies for her classroom. Strong for the single mom picking up extra hours so she can afford her daughter’s soccer cleats. Strong for the small business owner who has to make payroll at the end of the month.”
She also made sure to tout the accomplishments of several of her Democratic gubernatorial colleagues, many of whom just happen to, like her, lead swing states.
“Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Wolf is expanding the right to overtime pay. Michigan is, too. Because if you’re on the clock, you deserve to get paid,” she said. “Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper are working to give hardworking teachers a raise. And speaking of the classroom, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers unilaterally increased school funding by $65 million last year. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis has enacted free, all-day kindergarten.”
Whitmer ended her speech praising young people for taking action to fight school shootings, climate change and poor infrastructure.
“It’s what gives me great confidence in our future,” she said. “And it’s why sometimes, it feels like they’re the adults in the room. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. It’s not their mess to clean up. It’s ours.”
She also noted, as she did in her State of the State speech last week, that her eldest daughter is graduating from high school this year.
To end her response, Whitmer didn’t play it safe. She took on impeachment, even though Trump is almost certain to be acquitted Wednesday by the GOP-led U.S. Senate. In December, Whitmer said she supported Trump’s impeachment.
“As we witness the impeachment process in Washington there are some things each of us — no matter our party — should demand. The truth matters. Facts matter. And no one should be above the law,” she said. “It’s not what those senators say — tomorrow, it’s what they DO that matters. Remember. Listen to what people say — but watch what they do.
“It’s time for action.”