Jim Geraghty • National Review
For those who gripe that I’m always so negative about Trump . . . last night’s State of the Union address was terrific. A home run.
Every president since Ronald Reagan has saluted extraordinary Americans invited and seated in the gallery — “Lenny Skutnicks” is the Washington slang. Trump’s selection was terrific and he and his team wisely determined that the antidote to the angriest and most partisan environment in Washington in a long time was a celebration of heroes and figures far beyond the realm of politics: astronaut Buzz Aldrin; drug-dealer-turned-sentencing-reform-activist Alice Johnson; drug-dealer-turned-law-clerk Matthew Charles; ICE Special Agent (and legal immigrant) Elvin Hernandez; 10-year-old brain-cancer survivor Grace Eline; Tom Wibberley, whose son, Navy Seaman Craig Wibberley was killed on the U.S.S. Cole; Pittsburgh SWAT officer Timothy Matson; Judah Samet, who survived both the Holocaust and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; Holocaust survivor Joshua Kaufman; World War Two veteran Herman Zeitchik, who fought at Normandy and liberated Dachau. Their stories made the speech . . . actually interesting to hear. It was a long speech, but it was never boring.
Sure, the guests were used to illustrating various policy proposals or arguments. But that’s just effective communicating. At last month’s Koch network winter meeting, Johnson said, “People won’t remember statistics, but they’ll never forget a face.”
Trump’s last State of the Union was widely praised, as was his first address to a joint session of Congress. When Trump sticks to the teleprompter, lays out his agenda, stops talking about himself and starts talking about what his policies would do for the American people, you get a glimpse of the president he could be with a little more discipline and focus and a little less self-absorption and sensitivity to criticism.
But we’ve learned that the tone of Trump’s State of the Union addresses and the tone of the rest of his presidency are, at most, distant cousins. There are plenty of Trump-friendly Republicans who wish he would stop jumping online to denounce every CNN anchor or pundit who irritates him with criticism, and some variation of “Sad!” “Witch hunt!” “Enemy of the People!” If Trump stayed off Twitter for a week, just as an experiment, it would be fascinating. My suspicion is that he would end up giving more media oxygen to the repellent freakshow that the Democrats are turning into, from Ralph Northam to cheers for socialism to the draconian measures of the Green New Deal. Before you scoff that the media would never cover Democratic infighting and scandals, keep in mind this is the most wonderful time of the presidential cycle for those of us on the Right, as Democratic candidates attempt to shiv each other through leaks of opposition research.
But there’s ample evidence that what’s said in the State of the Union address doesn’t actually mean much in terms of policy change. Ramesh observed Trump ad-libbed a comment that suggested he’s making a dramatic change to his stance on immigration . . . or he just doesn’t pay much attention to what he’s saying at any given moment “Trump said, in a line absent from his prepared remarks, that he wanted legal immigration ‘in the largest numbers ever.’ Never mind that last year he endorsed large cuts to legal immigration, and rejected a Democratic offer of funding for a wall in part because it did not include those cuts . . . ”
If the State of the Union address really articulated the policy stances of the administration, we would be talking about Trump’s triangulation: nationwide paid family leave, a “government-wide initiative focused on economic empowerment for women in developing countries”, $500 million dollars over the next 10 years for childhood cancer research, “eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years,” “[prescription drug] legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients,” “ legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment” . . . On paper, the Trump administration and Congressional Democrats could find common ground and compromise on any of those policy priorities. But the Democrats have spent the last three years publicly insisting that Trump is Beelzebub. You can’t go to your constituents and say, “Hey, I worked out a great compromise on highway funding with that guy I told you was Evil Personified.”
If you’re a conservative, this speech had sufficient servings of red meat. On illegal immigration and smuggling, “humanitarian assistance, more law enforcement, drug detection at our ports, closing loopholes that enable child smuggling, and plans for a new physical barrier, or wall, to secure the vast areas between our ports of entry.” A call to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade, which isn’t all that different from NAFTA. A full-throated call for “legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children.”
The State of the Union has turned into a game where the president says good things that are happening that he may or may not deserve credit for and dares the opposition to not stand and clap for it. Democrats were slow to rise to applaud fighting sex traffickers, were “meh” on the good jobs and economic news that Trump bragged about, higher wages, lower unemployment for women and minorities, higher energy production . . .
But when he congratulated the new record of women in Congress — boy, did they jump up and applaud themselves.