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Trump's plea for bipartisanship rings hollow

Trump's plea for bipartisanship rings hollow

February 8th, 2019 by J. Bernstein/Bloomberg View in Opinion Columns

President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address on Tuesday to sell his policy of negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. That made sense: He gave a higher profile to something that hasn't received a lot of media attention, which pressured Congress, including Republicans, to get behind a policy they might not want to support. That's competent presidenting.

Unfortunately, that's about it for the positive. Like last year, Trump's speech was far more focused on the folks in the gallery—some heroes, some victims—than on policies. If you blinked, you missed infrastructure, which once again just seems to be an idea he talks about, not something he plans to enact. But he did worse when he actually tried to get specific. He engaged in some soaring rhetoric about child cancer, putting the spotlight on a wonderful little girl in the gallery to illustrate the point and then asked Congress for all of $500 million over the next 10 years to find a cure for the disease. That's the equivalent of telling your date that you're going to a fine French restaurant and ending up at Jack-in-the-Box.

And then there were the recycled ideas, including school choice and parental leave, that he mentioned last year, filed away for safekeeping, and pulled out again this time.

On his biggest issue, the border wall, he just reran the same rhetoric that failed to convince anyone who didn't already agree with him during the shutdown—without hinting about what he's going to do if he doesn't get what he wants from Congress.

The parts of the State of the Union that matter happen to also be those that ruin it as a speech, reducing it to a laundry list of proposals. So I'd grade any State of the Union on a very generous curve when it comes to effectiveness as rhetoric, remembering that even a very good presidential speech almost never moves public opinion.

And this one wasn't good.

Trump is probably at his best when he's riffing on familiar material, as he does at his rallies, and when he's in sync with his audience. Reading prepared stuff from a teleprompter is a skill he still hasn't really mastered, and he's absolutely terrible at handling anything remotely soaring, unlike Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. Nor is he good at policy detail, the way Bill Clinton was. Trump failed to find the natural flow of the text, often obliterating transitions. He sometimes managed to swallow the applause lines so badly that Republican members of Congress primed to cheer them waited a beat or two before reacting.

It didn't help that the speech was framed as a bid for bipartisanship and comity, which isn't exactly a natural sell for Trump. His initial plea for cooperation fell flat when he mentioned the "Democrat agenda" rather than the "Democratic" agenda, which injected a harsh partisan note that undermined the point he was trying to make.

As usual in a Trump speech, there were an unusual number of whoppers. He continues to lie like the stereotypical used-car salesman, with outlandish, unsupportable falsehoods, rather than like a politician, with clever exaggerations and spin. The fib that bothered me most was his preposterous claim that "If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea." He's been peddling different versions of that one for months, and it's just nuts; there was no push from Democrats (or Republicans for that matter) for any such war at any point during the last administration or from the candidates during the campaign.

At any rate: most of that stuff doesn't matter very much. What does matter is that it was another wasted opportunity from a president who has wasted plenty of them.

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