Making the click-through worthwhile: President Trump delivers a home run of a State of the Union address; three passages that didn’t work quite as well as the rest; yet another Democratic senator hints at a presidential campaign, while a potential rival candidate’s problems grow worse.
A Terrific State of the Union Address . . . But Will the Impact Last?
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.
Three Passages that Didn’t Work
The three notes in the State of the Union address that did not go over as well as the rest of the speech:
One: The upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un at the end of February in Vietnam. What did the last one achieve for American interests? They got the pomp and circumstance of the formal summit, and we got a bunch of broken promises:
North Korea is moving its nuclear and ballistic weapons to hide them from potential US military strikes, according to a UN Security Council diplomat citing a confidential UN report.
The North Korean nuclear and missile program remains intact and shows no change in North Korea’s behavior, says the bi-annual report.
The UN diplomat said the report found “evidence of a consistent trend on the part of the DPRK to disperse its assembly, storage, and testing locations.”
North Korea, which has called for sanctions to be lifted, “continues to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal” the summary alleges. Previous reports have also charged North Korea with these violations.
The summary also accuses North Korea of violating a UN arms embargo and supplying small arms, light weapons and other military equipment to Libya, Sudan, and Houthi rebels in Yemen, through foreign intermediaries.
In the most classically Trump moment in the speech, he boasted, “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” Right, as if Madam Reset Button, who pleasantly chatted with Hugo Chavez and talked about Bashar al-Assad’s reputation as a “reformer,” was itching for a conflict with a nuclear-armed regime. Ironically, if Hillary Clinton had won, she would probably be pursuing a similar strategy — making symbolic and substantive concessions to Pyongyang in exchange for promises of nonaggression.
Two: Negotiating with the Taliban. Back in 2012, a broad bipartisan coalition supported the idea and Mitt Romney didn’t, and he was allegedly an unhinged extremist for that perspective. You notice peace did not break out in Afghanistan in the mid-to-late Obama years. Efforts to negotiate with the Taliban have proceeded on and off for years, almost since the moment they lost control of the country. Every few months, the Taliban succeeds in some new attack that kills a lot of civilians in at attempt for leverage, and the negotiators look like naïve suckers. Back in 2014, Ahmad Majidyar wrote a history of the Taliban’s negotiations going back to the Soviet days and concluded:
The Taliban’s track record of negotiation is replete with trickery and deception. Over the past two decades, the Taliban has used negotiation as a tactic to gain political and military advantages rather than to settle conflicts. With the looming exit of foreign troops, the terrorist group appears more confident about a military victory and has even less incentive to negotiate in good faith.
Why do we think this time would be any different?
We’re getting tough on the brutal and authoritarian regimes in Iran and Venezuela but negotiating with the brutal and authoritarian regime in North Korea and the Taliban.
Three: “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!” Ridiculous partisan investigations can’t stop business investments, consumer confidence and spending, investor optimism, technological innovation, or the business cycle. Perhaps Trump means he won’t sign legislation if Congress is investigating him, but this would mean cutting off his nose to spite his face. Any legislation that can get passed in a Democratic-controlled House and a GOP-controlled Senate would be broadly popular, and Trump would be hurting himself by vetoing it.
This Democratic Presidential Primary Is Getting Crowded . . .
Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar says she’s making a big announcement on Sunday. For an oft-mentioned potential Democratic presidential candidate, she’s not that well known outside of her home state: Catch up on her here.
Inevitably, when I write those “Twenty Things” lists, I get some response along the lines of, “What, this is the worst you have on her?” Er, no, this is just 20 things I’ve collected from reading the candidate’s books, news coverage from the early years of their career, old profile pieces, old press releases, and so on. Some of them are scandalous and unflattering, some funny, some just odd and surprising. And most importantly, they’re not well-known; that’s why I didn’t mention the Native American stuff in the one about Elizabeth Warren.
Speaking of Warren . . .
Using an open records request during a general inquiry, for example, The Post obtained Warren’s registration card for the State Bar of Texas, providing a previously undisclosed example of Warren identifying as an “American Indian.” … The Texas bar registration card is significant, among other reasons, because it removes any doubt that Warren directly claimed the identity. In other instances Warren has declined to say whether she or an assistant filled out forms.
She’s toast, right?
ADDENDUM: Thanks to Kathy Gyngell for the kind words about this newsletter.