Selection of Sarah Huckabee Sanders to deliver the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union Address surprised me, but I may be using measures -- like achievement -- that have lost their significance in modern politics.
By the time Tuesday's speech to the U.S. Congress rolls around, Sanders will have been Arkansas' governor for 28 days. She's not held elective offices of any kind before. What exactly is it that recommends her to be, for one night, the standard bearer for the national Republican Party?
So far, she's governed through executive orders, some provocative, and through signing legislation advanced by the ongoing session of the state Legislature. Achieving her campaign promises remains to be seen, although that's likely given the makeup of the Legislature. As she's a rookie governor/elected official, I'm not sure I would expect anything more from her 28 days in, but I'm also not selecting her to make a nationally televised address in response to a president who's been in public service for 53 years.
Sanders will probably be good at it, though. She's sharpened her public presentation skills giving full-throated defense to Donald Trump's policies and personality while serving as his White House spokeswoman (I would say spokesperson, but I'm sure she'd prefer I'd not go gender neutral on her).
She's been intensely active in GOP politics for 20-plus years, a mover and shaker who first helped her father, Mike Huckabee, get re-elected as the state's governor and served him in his attempted run for president. She's been a driving force in unsuccessful campaigns of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty for president and John Brunner for Missouri's governor. In the win column, she helped John Boozman become a U.S. senator in 2010 and did the same for Tom Cotton in 2014.
She's Arkansas' first female governor and she's the nation's youngest governor at the moment. Those aren't insignificant milestones.
I'm not saying she isn't accomplished in politics. She is a downright expert at campaigning, which matters a lot whether you're a Democrat or a Republican. But I do not yet consider her accomplished in public service. It seems that ought to matter before she's earned the national spotlight of the Republican Party.
But she also may be the GOP's attempt to maintain a palatable connection to the powerful grip Donald Trump's populism had on some segments of the voting public, the kind of grip people like Kevin McCarthy can't replicate on his own. As devoted as Sanders was to her former master, she's not Trump.
So what can the nation expect from a 28-day-old governor? Will the speech follow the path of her first-day executive orders, articulating the need to make sure "Latinx" and other gender-neutral terms aren't used? Will it be generalities about political indoctrination by teachers, another subject of her first-day penmanship?
I doubt we'll hear much about those things because far more serious matters will -- or should -- weigh in for a national address about the country's challenges and how political leaders should respond. But my surprise at her selection, beyond her lack of any record of achievement yet as governor, stems from her election strategy, which involved her speaking publicly very little because the governor's race was hers to lose based solely on her Trump credentials and, to a lesser degree, her father's relationship to state history and politics
Sanders selection, whatever else it may be, fits the GOP effort to groom her into a future national political contender, but will this speech matter? Does anyone remember who delivered last year's response to the State of the Union? It's like singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl -- people remember only if you screw it up.