In Terms Of Tone, Trump Scores. But On Substance, He Strikes Out.

President Trump's performance, no doubt, comforted his friends and confounded his enemies.

Credit: Associated Press

In Terms Of Tone, Trump Scores. But On Substance, He Strikes Out.

February 28, 2017

PETER KADZIS: I'm writing just before President Trump kicks off his first address to a joint session of Congress. His job tonight is to consolidate Republican opinion. There is a perverse paradox at work. Trump kicked the daylights out of the GOP establishment during the 2016 presidential primaries. But now that he sits in the oval office, Trump needs the Washington wing of the party if he is to be more than the administrative-style leader his strategist Steve Bannon holds in such contempt.

ADAM REILLY: That’s an especially helpful gloss because it takes another possible Trump task — i.e., reaching out to Democrats and other Trump skeptics — off the table. I expect Trump to make a show of doing exactly that tonight, just like he's done before: remember that catchy "bind the wounds" phrase from the inaugural? The problem, obviously, is that while Trump can strike a conciliatory note when he's reading from a script, or a teleprompter, he almost never does so in his unscripted appearances, or in his late-night or early-morning tweets, which strike me as the purest window into his political soul. Heck, just today, he accused former President Barack Obama of masterminding an ongoing campaign to take him down! (Also today: the president said is opponents may be staging antisemitic attacks in order to discredit him, and that if you're going to blame someone for Navy SEAL Ryan Owens' death, you shouldn't blame him.)

Which raises a huge question: when Trump gives a prepared speech, does anything he says actually matter? Whatever one thought of Trump's predecessors, you could usually assume that the ideas and sentiments voiced in their prepared speeches would square with what they said and did in other contexts. They were basically the same person giving a speech as they were talking off the cuff. But with Trump, that’s not necessarily the case! So if, say, Trump tells Paul Ryan exactly what he wants to hear tonight, will Ryan actually be reassured? Or will he smile gamely, while bracing for Trump to say something totally different his next tweetstorm?

And yet...as Trump took the stage and began to speak, I didn’t see Ryan looking tormented. I saw him beaming like a proud parent.

KADZIS: People who don't follow politics are going to like the first few minutes of this speech. Why does this matter? Because the audience for big presidential addresses gradually drifts away. The first 20 minutes reach the most people, and then you have folks like us — junkies, professionals, and activists — watching. I never would have guessed that Trump would open with an ode to civil rights. But then again, earlier in the day he addressed the plight of historically black colleges. Go figure.

REILLY: I know! Didn’t see the civil rights nod coming — nor, I should note, a fairly forceful, get-right-to-it denunciation of those same antisemitic attacks I mentioned earlier. Also surprising: Canadian PM Justin Trudeau is the only world leader to get a shout-out, and Trump still hasn’t bashed the media!

Having said that, the meat of the speech is about what you’d expect, right? Trump’s reiterating his commitments to a “great, great” wall on the border; to mass deportations of bad hombres (don’t think he used the phrase, but the sentiment was there); to fighting “radical Islamic terrorism” and exterminating ISIS. And, of course, taking credit for a booming stock market and various American companies deciding to stick around and re-invest in the US. This was Trump’s bread and butter during the campaign, and he’s sticking with it now.

Is it shallow to admit I find unscripted Trump more entertaining?

KADZIS: Adam, the gang at Saturday Night Live will no doubt agree. Trump's tone, dare I say it, is presidential. We even get a quote from Abe Lincoln. So far, this a Reince Priebus speech. Bannon must be binge eating cold pizza.

I think, by the way, that Trump’s nod to West Virginia coal miners will come back to haunt him. Those jobs are not coming back. But payback is a long way away.

Notice, no specifics. In this or almost any other matter.

Trump’s call for infrastructure improvements and a $1 trillion investment will warm Bernie Sander's heart. And, I might add, would be good for the nation even as vague as it is.

But wait. Wait… now we have it: "Repeal and replace Obamacare." The problem is, the Affordable Care Act begins to unravel in earnest in April. That’s when the insurance companies have to decide whether they are in or out. In other words, the clock is ticking.

REILLY: We’ve heard for months about how a replacement plan for Obamacare was imminent, and Trump just offered us a pretty detailed picture of where he might be heading: tort reform, allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines and protection for people with pre-existing conditions. Interestingly, he also made an explicit call for healthcare collaboration with Democrats — twice! So we’re closing the speech with four straight issues where bipartisanship is, at least in theory, a real possibility: some kind of grand bargain on immigration reform, infrastructure, healthcare, and childcare.

But how long will it be, Peter, before Trump calls Chuck Schumer the “head clown” again — or asserts (as he did just this morning!) that Nancy Pelosi’s doing a terrible job? I can’t say those comments show Trump’s professed desire for bipartisanship is a sham. But I can, I think, say that jibes like that make it much harder for his bipartisan vision to become a reality. Maybe he’ll show more restraint in the wake of this speech than he has in the wee hours of the morning to date. We’ll see.

KADZIS: As bad as Trump's national approval ratings are, at 44 percent his national numbers are higher than Schumer's. Sorry to inject a fact.

Adam, my snark aside, you hit on an important point. Can Trump sustain a presidential demeanor? Bannon, I suspect, hopes not.

Hanging over this speech is the estimate that Trump's tax plan will add almost $3 trillion to the national deficit by 2027. Republicans will praise Trump's performance. But this fact will be floating in the back of their minds.

I have to say that Trump's pledge to clean up our air and water flies in the face of his plan to gut the Environmental Protection Agency. I wanted to jump out of my chair and shout, “Penalty.”

REILLY: Let’s close on a foreign-policy note. After Trump voiced qualified support for NATO, he got a standing ovation from the right side of the aisle when he said — and this is a close paraphrase — “I’m not the leader of the world. I’m the leader of the United States.” This, to me, encapsulates what’s so remarkable about the Trump phenomenon. The ideal of America as a force for international good has been bipartisan orthodoxy since World War II, and yet, over the course of the past year and a half, the GOP seems to have given it up without any meaningful hesitation.

Actually, let me shift gears one final time. Trump asserted, right before he wrapped up, that “the time for petty fights is over.” It’s a fine sentiment, but, as we’ve discussed here, his penchant for petty fights surpasses that of any president in recent memory. Seems to me that his presidency, and the fate of the United States, will hinge on whether he can change that M.O. It’s a sobering thought.

KADZIS: Sobering indeed. The late John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s attorney general and a convicted Watergate conspirator, offered a useful guide for moments such as these: Watch what we do, not what we say.

But Tuesday night was about words. And, as far as his words went, Trump scored a five out of five. That’s a clinical assessment on my part, not an endorsement of his policies.

As for substance, he scored a zero out of five. Harsh, yes. But he’s on the job. It’s not day one.

Now, when you average that out, the president gets a 50 percent. That’s six points higher than his approval rating. He returned to the White House in better shape than when he left.

 


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