Bernie Sanders faces progressive backlash over State of the Union response

Aki Soga

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., finds himself in another controversy involving race and gender over his rebuttal Tuesday night to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address.

On Twitter and other social media, as well as some publications, Sanders came under fire for a move seen as competing with Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who was chosen by the Democrats to respond to the president's speech.

The Root, an Afrocentric progressive online magazine, ran a headline reading, "Hey, Bernie Sanders Can You STFU After the SOTU and Let Stacey Abrams Shine?"

Abrams was the first African American woman to give the official opposition State of the Union rebuttal.

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In this Jan. 30, 2019, photo, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sanders on Thursday released a plan to significantly hike taxes on the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans, the latest in a series of proposals from Democratic presidential contenders to combat income inequality by shifting tax burdens to the upper class.

Race and gender blind spot

As Vox frames the controversy, "Sanders’s Democratic critics are accusing him of trying to upstage a black woman, part of what they say is a long-running blind spot on issues of race and gender." 

Sanders has worked hard since his 2016 campaign to strengthen ties within the African American community, which he failed to win over in his last presidential bid.

Sanders also faces problems over his campaign's treatment of women, including a failure to control the misogyny of so-called "Bernie Bros" and recent allegations of sexual harassment and pay inequality in 2016.

These are questions Sanders must settle definitively as he contemplates a possible bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

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Promoting Stacey Abrams

Major news outlets traditionally offer the opposing party a chance to respond to the president's annual address to the joint session of Congress — usually delivered by a rising star of the party.

Sanders sent out his speech on social media after Abrams was finished, and encouraged people first to tune in to her response.

Sanders also endorsed Abrams, who garnered more votes than any other Democrat in a Georgia statewide race.

Bernie Sanders' speech

The Vermont senator has offered his own rebuttal to Trump's annual speech every year, separate from the official Democratic response, partly because he remains an independent.

Sanders opened his speech by praising Abrams "for her very, very effective response to President Trump's State of the Union."

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Then Sanders launched into his familiar themes highlighting inequality and promoting social justice saying, "not everything Donald Trump said tonight was true or accurate." 

Sanders called the president's take on immigration "racist" and accused Trump of trying to divide the country.

Odd defenders

Sanders has found defenders in unexpected quarters, as some commentators took the opportunity to take a jab at progressives.

Robby Soave, writing in the Libertarian magazine Reason, writes that Sanders offering his own take, as he done after the first two Trump speeches, "should be completely inoffensive." He goes on to write, "And yet some in the liberal coalition think Sanders has got some nerve: He's a white man, choosing to speak, even though party leadership has chosen a black woman to speak."

Katherine Timpf, writing in the conservative National Review, rendered an even more stark verdict: "This is completely ridiculous, for so many reasons."

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Follow Aki Soga on Twitter: @asoga.

This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: Bernie Sanders faces progressive backlash over State of the Union response