By ANDREW DeMILLO
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders painted a dystopian portrait of the country in her rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, leaning heavily into Republican culture war issues and accusing Biden of pursuing “woke fantasies.”
Speaking from the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Sanders sounded a lot like her former boss, Donald Trump, as she warned of a nation whose ideals are under attack and whose citizens are fighting for their freedoms.
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” said Sanders, the former White House press secretary. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
Sanders, 40, delivered the speech less than a month after being sworn in as the first female governor of Arkansas. The daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, she is also the first Arkansan to deliver the response to a president’s State of the Union since Bill Clinton as governor in 1985.
Sanders’ speech was a reintroduction for the former press secretary, who as Trump’s chief spokesperson scaled back daily televised briefings after repeatedly sparring with reporters who aggressively questioned her.
She didn’t mention Trump by name during Tuesday’s speech, which embraced conservatives’ fights against the way race is taught in public school. She called Biden’s administration “completely hijacked by the radical left.”
“The dividing line in America is no longer right or left,” she said. “The choice is between normal or crazy.”
Sanders’ speech was a stark contrast to Biden’s address, which sought to reassure the country and urged Congress to work with him on rebuilding the economy.
With her speech, GOP leaders gave a platform to a figure linked closely to Trump, who remains influential within the party even as Republicans question how much of a hindrance his quest to return to the White House has become. The star turn for Sanders also puts the spotlight on the nation’s youngest governor at a time when recent polling suggests that even many Democrats view the 80-year-old Biden’s age as a liability.
Sanders highlighted that contrast, citing Biden’s age as the oldest U.S. president.
“It’s time for a new generation of Republican leadership,” she said.
Her speech comes as a Republican field for 2024 is beginning to form to challenge Trump, 76, as he seeks the White House for a third time. The field includes former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump and is expected to launch her candidacy next week.
Sanders’ predecessor, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, is also considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Hutchinson has been an outspoken critic of Trump and has said Trump being the GOP’s nominee would be the “worst scenario” for the party.
Sanders, who served roughly two years as White House press secretary, focused heavily on her criticism of Biden during her successful bid for governor last year. She frequently railed against the Democratic president’s COVID-19 pandemic response, immigration policies and other stances.
But since the election, Sanders has mostly avoided weighing in on Trump, who endorsed her bid for governor and was featured in her campaign materials. Sanders hasn’t said whether she plans to endorse Trump, who’s making a third bid for president.
In her speech Tuesday, Sanders praised her time in the Trump administration and the work they accomplished. She also talked about her diagnosis last year with thyroid cancer, and said she is cancer-free after undergoing surgery.
Sanders also embraced the criticism of technology companies that has become a rallying cry for Republicans after Trump was suspended from social media sites following the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Trump has since been reinstated on Twitter, and Meta last month said the former president’s Facebook and Instagram accounts will be restored.
In her speech, Sanders complained that “big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech.”
“That’s not normal. It’s crazy, and it’s wrong,” she said.
The culture wars are familiar territory for Sanders, who signed executive orders within hours of taking office that were cheered by conservatives. They included a prohibition on teaching critical race theory in public schools and a ban on most state agencies using the gender-neutral term Latinx.
Sanders has also said she’d support Arkansas enacting a measure similar to Florida’s law banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Critics have dubbed Florida’s measure the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The president, who’s expected to announce in the next few months that he’ll seek reelection, faces a tough political environment and a divided Congress. Polling released this week by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed just 37% of Democrats say they want him to seek a second term.
Sanders delivered the speech the day before she’s set to unveil an education proposal she’s called her priority in this year’s legislative session. Sanders has said the proposal will include teacher pay raises and some form of school choice that would allow public money to pay for private schooling.
“We will educate, not indoctrinate our kids, and put students on a path to success,” she said.
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