Forget the spectacle and skip over the pettiness. Last night’s State of the Union speech was most notable for what it didn’t include — a typical Donald Trump rally address and his usual snarky and self-focused asides and ad-libs. Despite Democrats’ complaints about the speech in its initial aftermath, this was far from a “MAGA rally,” even if it’s convenient for his political opponents to claim otherwise:
Democrats were exasperated over what they called a raucous campaign-style speech from President Trump on Tuesday night as the president made his case for reelection during his annual State of the Union address.
“Raucous”? What exactly was “raucous” about it? If anything, Trump was at his most measured and least dramatic on the dais last night. There was no ranting or name-calling, but instead a SOTU that any president could have delivered, a speech that followed the same form and function of almost every such speech in the televised age.
In many ways, Trump’s 80-minute speech represented a starting gun for his reelection campaign. It was short on bipartisan policy proposals and included plenty of red meat for his base that he will need to turn out at the polls in order to propel him to a second term in November.
Trump took credit for the economic recovery and contended he had reversed “American decline” — a line Democrats saw as a not-so-veiled shot at President Obama’s eight years of growth. He also railed against sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants and bragged that he was building hundred of miles of new wall along the Mexico border. …
“If I wanted to attend a MAGA rally, I would attend a MAGA rally,” fumed Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former House member and close Pelosi ally.
And how exactly is this different than State of the Union addresses in the past? Some people have very short memories indeed. Does anyone recall Barack Obama chastising the Supreme Court over their Citizens United decision in the middle of a SOTU, for instance, because it angered Democrats? How about Obama’s decision to leave a gallery seat open in the 2016 SOTU to highlight victims of gun violence in an election cycle where Democrats wanted to push gun control as a major election theme? Obama’s “I won — twice” potshot at Republicans in the 2015 SOTU after the GOP had just won control over the House and Senate? Or, for that matter, Obama’s use of the 2014 SOTU to lay out the Democratic campaign that generated that result?
No one who actually watched last night’s SOTU would confuse it with a “MAGA rally,” but they might be confused that Trump delivered such a conventional State of the Union address. In my analysis for The Week, I argue that this choice was deliberate — and tactical. It draws a contrast to the picture Democrats have painted of Trump the last couple of weeks, and it tees up Trump’s attempt to woo back independents in this election campaign:
Key to the impeachment push that has percolated for the last three years among Pelosi’s caucus is the argument that Donald Trump is a dangerous man. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) argued in his closing to the Senate that Trump might be so emboldened by an acquittal to attempt to sell Alaska back to the Russians or let Jared Kushner declare war. Impeachment managers accused Trump of presumptions of dictatorship, pretensions to royalty, treason, bribery, and a host of other accusations of lack of control. They pressed the case even knowing that it had no chance at all of winning 67 votes for removal in order to underscore Trump’s alleged abnormalcy and the danger he poses to the Republic.
Rather than fulfill those predictions with a rant on the House floor during the joint session, Trump’s speech offers an answer of its own. Trump could have taken the bait and turned this speech into a rebuttal to the two weeks of argument that has been carried non-stop by television networks. Instead, Trump put his presidential mien on stage for this occasion, rising above that version of partisan bickering to focus more on the usual partisan bickering over policies that American voters want addressed. Look how normal I actually am, this speech and its delivery communicate to voters who tuned in expecting a Trumpian wrestling match or campaign rally.
Trump and the White House clearly have to hope that these same voters who watched both the trial and the State of the Union see the contrast between the man House Democrats have described and the one voters can see for themselves. If Trump can stick to this discipline, it will paint Schiff and his fellow managers as the actual agitators, the people who broke the norms to overturn an election to get rid of a president they just don’t like.
Democrats are making Trump’s job a lot easier with all of their hair-pulling over last night’s stunningly routine speech. The media’s coverage of it isn’t a whole lot better, but thanks to the drama of the impeachment trial, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t one of the most-watched SOTUs in recent years — just from people curious to see if Trump would blow his top. A lot of them might have been disappointed to see just how normal Trump was — and might start getting suspicious of those who are now claiming otherwise.
At the very least, Trump didn’t do anything to lose votes in today’s trial verdict vote. He might have done enough to get one or two crossover votes from Senate Democrats for acquittal, such as Kyrsten Sinema, who applauded Trump quite a bit more than her fellow Democrats.