Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, R-Ark., speaks while delivering the Republican response to President Biden's State of the Union address, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark. Credit: Al Drago / Bloomberg via Pool

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Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.

Let’s get this out of the way: Delivering a rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address is no easy job. Those tasked with the responsibility generally sit in a room by themselves (versus the president who can play off a House chamber full of energy – be it positive or negative). They have to quickly respond to a speech that they and their staff may have read, but they don’t have the benefit of seeing how the applause lines or the gotcha phrases were received.

Many people have taken on this thankless task and failed. Addresses by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius come to mind.

So new Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders had a difficult task Tuesday night.

The former spokeswoman for President Donald Trump chose an interesting theme for her speech, which echoed her old boss’s dark warnings about a broken America that only he could fix.

“The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy,” she warned.

Now, I know I am not part of Sanders’ target demographic, but I don’t think the dividing line between normal or crazy falls where she thinks it does.

Using government investments to help grow the economy, create jobs and bring manufacturing back to the U.S., as President Joe Biden pledged to continue doing? That seems pretty normal. Lowering prescription drug costs and making health care more affordable? Normal and popular with the American people. Incentivizing cleaner energy to help address climate change? Normal and being done in other countries.

Sure these, and the many other programs and services Biden touted in his speech, cost money and the federal deficit is a concern, and the president was short on details about how he’d pay for his laundry list of promises. But, using the government, and its checkbook, to better the lives of the American people is not a new concept. It is not abnormal or, when people consider specific programs that benefit them, unpopular.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans disagree on how much money the federal government should spend and how involved it should be in specific areas of our lives. But being on one side of this disagreement or the other does not make one crazy and the other normal.

Unlike Biden, who made appeals to all Americans, whether they agreed with him or not, Sanders appeared to be playing to a small group of people who feel aggrieved by efforts to promote equality and acceptance of all Americans. She peppered her remarks with references to “woke fantasies” and “a culture war.”

In one particularly nasty take, she called Biden, “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”

This is a dog whistle to those who want to take rights away from transgender Americans, to treat them as subhuman. It had the added bonus of trying to emasculate the president. Such anger and nastiness cannot be normalized.

Sanders also hearkened to another favorite conservative word: freedom. The freedom of Americans is “under attack,” she said, unironically touting both her opposition to “government control” and the executive orders she recently signed to “ban CRT, racism, and indoctrination in our schools.”

Similar efforts in Florida, under another Republican rising star, Gov. Ron DeSantis, have resulted in restrictions on what can be taught in K-12 schools. Teachers have sealed off bookshelves in their classrooms and hundreds of books, including math books, are being removed from schools until they can be approved by trained reviewers. The latest books to be removed include stories about black athletes.

At the New College, a progressive public liberal arts college in Sarasota, DeSantis remade the board with six conservative members. The board promptly fired the schools’ president and replaced her with a former education commissioner, also a DeSantis appointee. The Florida governor also unveiled a proposal to mandate courses in Western civilization and to eliminate diversity and equity programs at state colleges and universities.

This isn’t freedom. It is the worst kind of government intrusion and overreach based on false fears and the demonization of thoughts and people that don’t conform to a narrow world view.

It isn’t normal. It is, to borrow a phrase from Gov. Sanders, crazy.

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Susan Young

Susan Young is the opinion editor at the Bangor Daily News. She has worked for the BDN for over 25 years as a reporter and editor.