In its official response to President Donald Trump’s first joint address to Congress Tuesday night, the Democratic Party placed a bet on convincing voters they’d love Obamacare if they only gave it a chance.
It’s new territory for Democrats, who largely ran away from the health care law while Barack Obama was president. To make that case, they turned to former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a relic of the party’s Southern, working-class roots.
Opposition parties typically ride the coattails of presidential addresses to push one of their rising stars into the spotlight, even though the platform has had a mixed success rate.
But in party trending liberal, diverse and cosmopolitan, Beshear — a 72-year-old Southern white moderate — is nobody’s idea of the future.
Beshear leaned heavily on shibboleths of traditional America to speak directly to the voters who fled his party for Trump. Beshear invoked football on Friday nights, church on Sundays, farmers, veterans, coal miners, auto workers and even Ronald Reagan.
He called himself a “small town preacher's’ kid” with “old-fashion” values, and noted he’s an Army veteran.
"I’m a proud Democrat, but first and foremost, I’m a proud Republican, and Democrat, and mostly American," Beshear said near the beginning of the speech, highlighting his embrace of both sides of the political spectrum.
The ex-governor was chosen to highlight a single issue — Obamacare — and be a less-freighted messenger for it than the former president whose name is forever associated with the law.
Related: 12 Fact Checks From Trump's Address
Under Beshear, uber-red Kentucky became an unlikely poster child for the Affordable Care Act.
Beshear built an effective state insurance exchange in the South even as the law struggled to get off the ground in more Democratic states. One-in-nine Kentuckians are now insured through Obamacare, and the state saw the biggest drop in the uninsured rate of any in the country.
Pointing to that experience and Trump's own campaign rhetoric, Beshear accused the president of “reneging” on his populist promises.
“They would put the insurance companies back in control,” Beshear said of Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. “Behind these ideas is the belief that the folks at the lower end of the economic ladder just don’t deserve health care. That it is somehow their fault that their employer does not offer insurance or that they can’t afford to buy expensive health plans.”
“You picked a cabinet of insiders and Wall Street billionaires,” Beshear continued. “That’s not being our champion, that’s being Wall Street’s champion.”
Some Democrats privately expressed befuddlement that Beshear was given the high-profile response gig and not, say, newly elected California Sen. Kamala Harris or liberal icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But Beshear’s message was not for the base. Instead, it was a gamble that Democrats can persuade soft Trump supporters who may be having some buyer's remorse six weeks into his administration.
“We chose him because in Kentucky, a very conservative state, ACA has been a big success. Everyone’s for it,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told MSNBC after the speech. “The governor, coming from the heartland of America, also talked about how Donald Trump is breaking his word to the American people.”
Meanwhile, other Democrats and progressives vied for attention in the crowded marketplace of “The Resistance.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered a straight-to-camera address on Facebook, telling supporters to keep up their calls to Congress and protests in the streets on Obamacare. “The Republicans are now on the defensive,” Sanders said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Trump “speaks like a populist, but he is selling working people down the river to Wall Street.”
Still, Democrats grappled with how to respond to a speech that was undeniably more presidential than any other Trump had given.
“Tonight’s speech was a well-scripted, well-rehearsed presentation,” said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Sanders ally. “But it was also exactly what we know to expect from Donald Trump: the bluster never stops, and the facts never matter. Tonight’s speech was no different.”
Inside the House chamber during the speech, Democratic women wore white, a color associated with the Suffragette movement, making them conspicuous in wide shots as they sat stoically while Republicans stood and clapped. Others wore blue ribbons to support the American Civil Liberties Union, blue pins in defense of Obamacare, or red question marks to call attention to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.
There no outbursts from Democrats during the address, but some laughed when Trump said the “time for trivial fights is behind us,” and they groaned when the president announced an effort to publicize the crimes of undocumented immigrants.
And some more moderate senators up for reelection next year, like Montana’s Jon Tester and Indiana’s Sen. Joe Donnelly, clapped when the president called for a swift confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
But West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who literally invited a primary challenge days ago and on Tuesday defended a meeting with conservative Breitbart News, was one of the first members of Congress of either party to greet Trump after his speech.
The Democratic National Committee, however, under newly elected chairman Tom Perez, seemed in no mood to play nice. Minutes after Trump started speaking, it sent out a press release titled, “Trump Enables Anti-Jewish Hate Crimes.”