Trump’s SOTU speech was a cynical exercise in pretend bipartisanship

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi in happier times. 2017 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Was President Trump’s bipartisan outreach in his State of the Union address Tuesday night a cynical attempt to recast himself as something he fundamentally is not? Or was it an even more cynical attempt to be seen as bipartisan while winking and nodding to his hardcore supporters? As Lily Tomlin once observed, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” I thought it was clear that Trump was pursuing the latter course. So take this as my attempt to stay ahead of the Tomlin curve.

The conventional take was expressed in The Wall Street Journal by Gerald Seib, who wrote: “When Donald Trump became president, there was reason to believe he might govern as he campaigned, almost as an independent, standing apart from both parties, perhaps even with an ability to bridge the two parties because he was beholden to neither of them. And for the first half an hour of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, that was the very tone he set in his remarks in the House chamber. He opened his arms to Democrats, declaring that Americans are ‘hoping we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.’”

But is that really what Trump did? Consider:

  • Near the beginning of his speech, the president said that “the agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda.” Referring to the Democratic Party as “the Democrat Party” is a slight that goes back decades, as then-NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepherd explained in 2010. It was a calculated way for Trump to signal to his base that he was reaching out to Democrats while actually doing the opposite.
  • Trump refused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the courtesy of introducing him, as is the longstanding custom at the State of the Union. Kate Feldman noted the snub in New York’s Daily News, although she also observed that “he and Pelosi did share a cordial handshake during the first standing ovation.”
  • Much later in his 82-minute stemwinder, Trump began ranting about the evils of socialism — “as if it had gotten particularly far along,” snarked Jim Newell in Slate. Trump’s remarks were apparently aimed at Congress’ two high-profile democratic socialists, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and they seemed to have little effect. The #NeverTrump conservative Max Boot bemusedly pointed out in The Washington Post that Trump “equated [socialism] with Venezuela rather than, say, Denmark.” But it was a sign that Trump is prepared to go full Red Scare in what will surely be a desperate attempt to win re-election.

“Trump and his advisers can see he’s in a corner,” wrote the liberal commentator Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. “He needs to try to get some footing with a less confrontational, more unifying posture that most Presidents at least optically try to govern from.”

Other than Trump’s phony bipartisanship, his customary fear-mongering about undocumented immigration and crime, and his introduction of some truly admirable guests (every one of whom exuded a decency that was entirely absent from the podium), what struck me most was an unforced error in which he directly drew a parallel between himself and Richard Nixon.

“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,” Trump said, a direct reference to the ongoing investigations into his campaign, his businesses, and his presidency. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”

As Philip Bump pointed out in The Washington Post, Nixon said something remarkably similar in his 1974 State of the Union speech: “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” Bump’s riposte: “It wasn’t quite enough, as it turned out.”

The Democrats’ official response to Trump’s speech, delivered by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, was unusually effective as these grim rituals go. Abrams gave an upbeat, warm talk while simultaneously scorching Trump over the recent government shutdown (she said she helped serve meals to out-of-work federal employees) and talking frankly about voter suppression. Abrams lost a close race for governor last November amid accusations that a variety of Election Day problems had resulted in thousands of voters in Democratic areas being turned away.

Who was watching Tuesday night? Mainly Trump voters. According to CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta, people who viewed the speech “were roughly 17 points more likely than the general public to identify as Republicans.” And they liked what they saw, with about 60 percent giving it a thumbs-up.

Trump’s approach was pretty standard for him: Appeal to his shrinking but loyal base in the hopes that he can parlay their enthusiasm into another Electoral College victory. We are a very long way from knowing whether it will work — or even if he’ll be on the 2020 ballot given the various investigations swirling around him. It didn’t work out for Nixon. The final chapter of the Trump presidency has yet to be written.

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It wasn’t the politics of health care that did in Trumpcare. It was the substance.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2017 by Lorie Scholl.

I find myself frustrated at the tone of much of the commentary following the humiliating withdrawal of the Trump-Ryan health-care bill Friday. I could find a bunch of stuff to link to, but we’ve all seen it. It’s all about winning. So much winning. And if the bill had been approved, most commentators would be hailing President Trump for his big victory.

Yes, Trump got the politics wrong. But of far greater significance is that he and House Speaker Paul Ryan got the substance wrong. There was nothing in their legislation other than a chest-thumping assertion that Obamacare is dead — and that we’re going to screw the poor, help the rich, and dismantle much of what was accomplished by the Affordable Care Act.

The two groups that defeated the legislation did so on principled grounds: Democrats and moderate Republicans who wanted Obamacare to remain entirely or mostly intact; and the House Freedom Caucus, whose extremist members don’t want any government involvement in health care whatsoever. On the other side, those who supported Trumpcare couldn’t point to a single provision that would have improved anyone’s lives other than the wealthy people who’d get a tax cut.

After the defeat, Trump blamed House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. He’s right — it’s on them. And we should thank them for saving the most important piece of social legislation since Medicare was approved in the 1960s. And these folks, too:

Any major new program needs technical fixes along the way. Unfortunately, after Obamacare was approved, congressional Republicans refused to consider any such legislation. That, along with attempts by many Republican governors to undermine it in their states, is responsible for the ACA’s not working as well as it should.

On Friday, the ACA was saved. It now must withstand at least two years of Republican attempts to starve it of funds. But as Jonathan Chait of New York magazine points out, it’s not likely to be repealed after the debacle of this week. Trump and congressional Republicans won’t be in power forever. At some point, we’ll have an opportunity to get this right.

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Is Mitt the one? For House speaker, that is!

Mitt Romney in 2010. Photo (cc) by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.
Mitt Romney in 2010. Photo (cc) by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

House Republicans appear to have reached their End of Days. David Brooks of The New York Times, a moderate conservative who at one time would have epitomized Establishment Republicanism, has analyzed the situation brilliantly. So has Gene Lyons, a liberal, at The National Memo.

The immediate crisis is that the House of Representatives appears incapable of electing a speaker to succeed John Boehner. The problem is that Republicans on the extreme right vow not to respect the choice of the Republican caucus. That means no one will get a majority once the speakership comes to a full vote in the House, since nearly all of the Democrats will vote for their party’s leader, Nancy Pelosi.

So I have an idea, and I thought I’d toss it out there. We’re already having a good discussion about it on Facebook. How about a moderate Republican who’s not currently a member of the House (yes, it’s allowed) and who would be supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats. How about — as my friend Catherine Tumber suggested — Mitt Romney?

Please understand that by “moderate” I mean moderate by the standards of 2015. Boehner may be the most conservative House speaker of modern times, but he’s a moderate by comparison with the right-wingers who are holding the House hostage. And so is Romney, who’d finally get the big job in Washington that he’s long lusted for.

Under this scenario, the Republicans would necessarily pay a high price for their inability to govern. House rules would have to be changed to give the Democrats more of a voice and maybe even a few committee chairmanships. The idea is to form a coalition government that cuts out the extreme right wing.

The chief impediment would be that Democrats might not want to throw the Republicans a life preserver under any circumstance, especially with the presidential campaign under way. But it would be the right thing to do, and I hope people of good will consider it. Or as Norman Ornstein, who predicted this mess, so elegantly puts it in an interview with Talking Points Memo: “We’re talking about the fucking country that is at stake here.”

A solid debut by Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour

Not long after Tim Russert’s death, I realized that my aversion to George Stephanopoulos was not nearly as deep-seated as my aversion to David Gregory. So I switched from “Meet the Press” to “This Week” and haven’t looked back. Among other things, “This Week” regular George Will is a great entertainer, and where else other than the New York Times can you get a regular dose of Paul Krugman?

Stephanopoulos, of course, decamped for morning television months ago, never to be seen again — at least not by me. Today, at long last, marked the much-anticipated debut of his permanent replacement, former CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour. I don’t think the occasion warrants a lot of analysis. But surely a little is in order. A few points.

1. I don’t watch “This Week”; rather, I listen to the podcast. So if there were any changes to the set, I wouldn’t know. For what it’s worth, I thought Amanpour, her guests and her panelists all sounded fine.

2. It was a good first week for Amanpour. She had two major gets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. If Amanpour’s questions failed to elicit any major news, neither did she embarrass herself. In any event, with rare exceptions, top government officials are going to say what they’re going to say regardless of what they are asked.

3. Though “This Week” seemed pretty much the same as it always has, Amanpour did shake things up a bit, as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid joined the roundtable from Spain. Over time, I’m hoping that Amanpour turns the entire format upside-down, eschewing political chit-chat for real substance. Perhaps this was one small step in that direction.

4. Jake Tapper deserves kudos for the way he handled “This Week” as a fill-in host the past several months. By taking a few chances (especially by embracing of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s suggestion that he add fact-checking to the show), Tapper demonstrated that there’s still some life left in the old format.

If, for some reason, Amanpour doesn’t work out, or if ABC News decides to use her elsewhere, then Tapper would be a natural — and I think viewers would accept him far more readily than they would have before his stint as a substitute.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.