President Trump came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening as a pitchman for bipartisan comity, but he couldn’t bring himself to really make the sale.
In his State of the Union address, postponed because of the pointless government shutdown for which he bears the blame, the president appealed for cooperation between Republicans and the Democrats who now comfortably control the House, a new reality symbolized by the presence of Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the rostrum with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump said. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.”
But those lofty sentiments didn’t translate into much of a change in Trump’s agenda, or even stop him from lobbing verbal shells at Democrats over several hot-button issues. He even warned the new Democratic majority in the House not to engage in “ridiculous partisan investigations,” saying, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
In particular, Trump didn’t seem serious about compromising with the newly empowered Democrats on immigration. It was his obsessive insistence on funding for a “great wall” on the Mexican border that led to the 35-day partial shutdown that ended — temporarily — after Trump agreed to a short-term spending bill without wall funding.
And Trump hasn’t let go of his obsession. In his speech he repeated his lurid descriptions of illegal immigration as a source of crime, sex crimes and mayhem and warned that, “as we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States.” And while he emphasized that he was proposing not just physical impediments but other measures to increase security at the border, the wall remains paramount for him. “Simply put,” he told Congress, “walls work and walls save lives.” He could have been addressing a campaign rally.
Trump undermined any fruitful negotiation with Democrats with a cheap shot against “wealthy politicians and donors [who] push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.” If the president is to “forge new solutions” with Democrats on immigration, he will have to change his tone, scale back his ambitions and stop scapegoating immigrants.
If Trump is going to link arms with Democrats, it’s far more likely to be on three other areas he spoke about Tuesday: wiping out HIV/AIDS, increasing federal spending on cancer research and reining in prescription drug costs. As welcome as those proposals may be, however, they come amid incessant efforts by the administration to undermine Obamacare — particularly, the law’s efforts to make comprehensive insurance policies available to more low- and moderate-income Americans. If Trump is serious about working with Democrats on healthcare, he will stop trying to destabilize the Affordable Care Act and start using it as a vehicle to cover more people, improve the quality of care and slow the growth of healthcare costs.
Much of the rest of Trump’s address consisted of boasts about the accomplishments of his administration, a feature of every State of the Union address. He claimed that the economy is “growing almost twice as fast today as when I took office” — it’s closer to 40% faster — but failed to acknowledge the widespread expectation that growth is slowing, in part because of his own trade policies.
His defense of his foreign policy record accentuated the positive — a cessation of North Korea missile launches — while neglecting to mention that his own director of national intelligence testified that North Korea was “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.” The president reiterated that he doesn’t believe that the U.S. should fight “endless wars,” and said that “it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.” But he didn’t mention that his abrupt announcement that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria unsettled allies and cost the president his secretary of Defense.
Presidents are expected to tout their own achievements, and even to exaggerate them. This speech won’t be remembered for the praise Trump lavished on his administration but for his call for “all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.” The president needs to answer his own summons.
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