The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Void in Trump’s Speech

In his State of the Union address, President Trump was much better at describing his past accomplishments than his future agenda. He took credit for a strong economy—more than truly merited, but that’s something all presidents with a good economy do—and explained that almost everyone is going to be paying lower taxes starting next month. This was politically necessary, if very predictable, work, made more powerful by the Democrats’ refusal to cheer for any of it. And he mentioned the judicial appointments and deregulation, among other policies for which conservatives are grateful.

But there was almost nothing of substance about 2018. The great exception is immigration, where he laid out a relatively detailed proposal in a way that will strike people without strong views on the subject as fair and sensible. Long stretches of the speech were, however, simply vacuous, as when Trump endorsed higher infrastructure investment and lower opioid addiction rates without saying a word about how these goods would be achieved. These were goals, not policies.

One reason the speech was so heavy on shout-outs to heroes and victims in the audience was that the policy cupboard is pretty bare. Congressional Republicans don’t appear to have any more specific idea of what to do now than Trump does. The speech did nothing to fill the vaccuum.

Yet I think the speech is a modest political victory anyway. It will strike those Americans who aren’t die-hard lovers or haters of Trump—and these people do exist—as reasonable. The problem is that the impression Trump gave tonight will fade quickly, and not just because he might tweet something incendiary tomorrow but because the speech was not designed for any follow-through. Republicans seem to be limping along to the midterm elections.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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