Trump Vs. Republicans (3): The Speech to a Joint Session

What to make of the President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night? I’ve read many takes on the speech (more below on this) but the general drift is this: (a) it went over well with the public; (b) Republicans, including those in the Congress, loved it, Democrats not so much; (c) it was filled with familiar untruthful claims about the dire situation of the nation; and (d) regarding Trump’s more subdued tone and sticking with the teleprompter, some declared themselves relieved, others noted this was giving him credit for clearing a much-lowered bar.

But these reactions are mostly as to tone and mood. The more serious question is what work did the speech set out to do, and in that regard did it succeed?

My first reaction was to be struck at how much the speech seemed like a toned down campaign speech, longer on aspiration and quite short on actual policy proposals. Perhaps that was some of the work: it was another campaign speech designed to gather his base of supporters, perhaps even to try to broaden it by looking more presidential.

I think the real work of the speech, however, was to try to begin working out an understanding between the White House (Trump/Pence/Bannon/Priebus) and the Congressional Republicans (McConnell and Ryan, certainly, but also the various factions within the Congressional Republicans). Trump was making a pitch for what the outlines of policy should be: the major issues, the broad outline of proposals to come, the rhetorical connective tissue among these initiatives that will allow them to be pursued together.

Again, longer on aspiration and quite short on actual policy proposals. On none of the key issues he discussed did Trump put forth any more specifics than he has signaled before: not on immigration, not on healthcare, not on trade, not on budget or taxes, not on regulation, not on foreign policy or military spending. (Etc.) Still, he mentioned all those things and did it in the frame of one speech that, while completely undistinguished as to shape or memorable phrase, did hang loosely together.

Ryan called it a “home run,” so at least Trump passed that simple test. McConnell, too seemed pleased (called the speech “inspirational”), and journalists couldn’t find a Republican member of Congress voicing criticism.

The speech was a trial framing of the agenda ahead. He was pitching to the Republican Congressional leadership. How about this as the package of stuff we’ll work together on, he asked, and they nodded assent. They caught the ball and declared it a good throw. In these terms, however, it was a rather small step. He didn’t venture much. We didn’t learn anything new, so stay tuned.  There may well be a good deal of falling out between Trump and various Congressional Republicans as they work on policy and legislative details.

In the weeks and months ahead, we should keep the speech close at hand to use as a scorecard for seeing how the White House and the Congressional Republicans are doing at working together as they put forward specific pieces of legislation. The speech gives us the outline. We’ll look for the policy details; we should especially take notice if anything is thrust onto the agenda that wasn’t mentioned in this speech.

The two most important facts in this post-election period are still these: While still stunned, those who did not vote for Trump are outraged, engaged and mobilizing. And, second, the base of Republican/conservative voters who hung together to vote for Trump are still sticking with him.

To their shame, I add, because whatever the values those voters publicly espouse, whatever the policy initiatives, and despite the appearances of this one speech, the current President has shown himself by character to be unfit to be President.


Some pieces worth reading on the speech, in alpha order, all insightful:

E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Trump Still Wants You To Be Very, Very Afraid

James Fallows of The Atlantic, Giving Trump a Clean Shave

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, A Night When Trump Acted Normal

David Frum of The Atlantic, The Three Failures of Trump’s Speech

Susan Reed of Boston’s Cognoscenti, Extreme Vetting of the President: New Rules for News Outlets

Carl Solovox, on the blogsite Medium, Trump’s Address, Easy Version

On the recognition of slain SEAL Ryan Owens, Paul Waldman of The Washington Post, The pundits are wrong. Trump’s handling of the Ryan Owens affair was contemptibly cynical.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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