Trump's grand occasion for score-settling
"Victory is not winning for our party," President Trump declared in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. "Victory is winning for our country." If so, that's a new definition for everyone in attendance, including for the president.
Earlier in the day, the White House messaging team emphasized that the president would use the event to call for a new sense of unity in Washington, D.C. "This president is going to call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution and call for more comity," Kellyanne Conway told reporters the day before the speech. Conway also promised that Trump would "point out a couple of examples" where the Trump administration had modeled "cooperation" and "compromise."
That seems pretty rich coming off the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the second in two years, with both sides of the aisle responsible for one apiece. Perhaps that made this moment propitious for an olive branch and an invitation to find common ground. If so, however, this speech didn't deliver. Instead, Trump gave the kind of speech he'd give in any other context, and the kind of speech that describes almost all State of the Union addresses — a laundry list of demands, highlights of the president's accomplishments, and a few pokes at his opposition.
The Comity and Unity Tour got off to a bad start right from the beginning. Trump came to the podium to deliver his speech while ignoring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In fact, Trump didn't even wait for Pelosi to follow protocol and introduce him to the joint session of Congress. Nevertheless, the speech started with themes of unity in crisis and of American greatness. Trump asked Congress to "reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution," and to decide between "greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction."
And then Trump made clear that the terms of greatness and progress would be set by his vision. In the very next breath, Trump hailed "an unprecedented economic boom" as the result of policies he championed over fierce Democratic opposition. The GOP tax cut got through Congress via the reconciliation process in order to avoid having to cooperate or compromise with Democrats. Trump also bragged about killing off the ObamaCare individual mandate penalty, part of the same reconciliation package, that undermined Democrats' signature legislative accomplishment from their previous majority in 2009-10. Trump's statement that his administration "cut more regulations in a short time than any other administration during its entire tenure" may well be true, but it was an effort made without any hint of cooperative effort and completed over the strenuous objections of Democrats. Trump followed that up by demanding that Senate Democrats offer cooperation by allowing over 300 of his appointees to be confirmed.
Trump did hail a few cooperative efforts. Democrats wanted criminal justice reform, Republicans wanted agricultural policy reforms, and everyone wanted to do something about the opioid crisis. Trump spoke at some length about the impact of criminal justice reform and spread the credit around. That, however, provided only a brief sense of unity before Trump launched into his biggest and most controversial demand — funding for the border wall. That argument alone took up almost 20 percent of Trump's 5,200-word speech.
The speech went over very well with viewers, at least according to a CBS/YouGov flash poll taken immediately afterward, where 76 percent approved of Trump's speech. It landed with a thud among Democrats in Congress, of course, which it seemed almost calculated to do. His scolding of their leadership over their focus on "ridiculous partisan investigations" likely didn't help matters. Pelosi later said she took that as an "all-out threat ... He said he wasn't going to cooperate unless we didn't exercise our constitutional responsibility to oversight."
It certainly didn't set a tone of "comity" or "unity," even if it did underscore the point Trump has repeatedly made on Twitter and in press conferences over the last two years. But comity and unity are not the point of most State of the Union addresses. They are wildly overglorified stump speeches and grand opportunities for score-settling by presidents who feel slighted or frustrated. Barack Obama infamously used the platform to tee off on the captive Supreme Court justices for their Citizens United decision, an example which sounded a lot more like a threat to the constitutional order than Trump's complaint about partisan investigations. George Bush and Bill Clinton didn't mind scolding the opposition for obstructing their agendas, either.
No president values comity over accomplishment, or compromise over abject victory over his opposition. They may have paid lip service to it in years past, and Trump at least checked that box off too. However, voters don't award compromise and cooperation at the ballot box these days. They have grown so frustrated with Washington, D.C., that they gravitate towards strongmen who claim they can deliver everything without giving up anything, the very problem that both sides have created on the immigration standoff. It therefore shouldn't surprise us when presidents use this platform to define "comity" and "cooperation" with "doing exactly what I want and when I want it."
In that sense, this State of the Union address differed not one whit from any other over the past generation or more. It didn't differ in any other sense either. All it really provided was a few red-meat moments for the base, and another piece of evidence as to why the State of the Union tradition is one we should bring to an end.