Opinion

Trump Playing the Long Game With State of the Union Deferral

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Posted: Jan 24, 2019 12:21 PM
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Trump Playing the Long Game With State of the Union Deferral

Source: (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The last column I wrote for this space called for a “People’s State of the Union,” a massive Donald Trump rally delivered in front of thousands of supporters, a sublime statement to Nancy Pelosi that said: “If you don’t want me in your room, I’ll find someplace else.”

It was fun to write, and fun to think about: a State of the Union speech transformed into a massive MAGA spectacle; she’d regret the snub for sure. Other creative ideas arose: deliver it at the border; deliver it down the hall in the Senate.

But late Wednesday night, the president decided there would be no alternative address, no high drama as he took to some other stage to hammer Democrats about the standoff that they could solve in an hour. He would in fact defer to Speaker Pelosi’s yanking of her House chamber invitation and schedule the address when the shutdown is over. “There is no venue that can compete with the history, tradition and importance of the House Chamber,” he tweeted, promising “a great State of the Union address in the near future.”

The immediate question was not whether his haters would celebrate this momentary surrender; they promptly did. On the left and among his tormentors who still think they are on the right, the mockery was instant, ridiculing a supposed tough, deal-making Trump for bowing to the superior skills of Nancy Pelosi.

But part of their glee assumed that his base would also see it as a dispiriting capitulation—that Trump supporters would recoil, slump their shoulders and wonder what happened to the fighter they voted for.

Well, he’s still there, and the mutiny is not happening.

The reason is clear: Trump is playing a long game here that extends far beyond a thumb in Pelosi’s eye delivered through some relocated State of the Union. His eye is on the only ball that matters—border security. And no matter how his maneuvers may strike any observer, one thing is certain: he does not do anything that he does not expect to accrue to his benefit.

So what are the benefits of bowing to Pelosi at this moment? As this week blends into the weekend, there will be deep examination of the president’s decision to delay his address. Some valuable takeaways will arise, foremost among them that it is Pelosi who offended tradition by rescinding an invitation issued after the shutdown began, and it is Trump who cleaves to that tradition by agreeing to wait until it can be delivered in its customary place.

This very behavior—letting her have her way for this chapter—is deliciously counterintuitive, disarming the critics who berate Trump as unable to restrain his bullying instincts. Now, not only has he offered DACA protections which are a worthy compromise to secure wall funding, he has now yielded when the world expected him to double down. There is one reason the State of the Union is delayed: Nancy Pelosi. There is one reason wall funding is blocked: Nancy Pelosi. These are valuable impressions that could solidify in the coming days, adding to pressure on Democrats to agree to a border security figure smaller than what government wastes over an average weekend.

Now fast-forward to whatever evening that actually finds us watching the State of the Union. There are clear benefits to the delayed gratification now underway:

The political theater of the alternative address would have been enormously satisfying for the base, but may have ultimately been empty calories. It would have been derided as a stunt if moved outside the Capitol, and surely attended by crowds of seething Trump-haters who would have received as much coverage as the supportive throng inside. Even if moved 200 yards down the hall to the Senate, Democrats would have boycotted, arguing that it was not a “real” State of the Union.

Well, it’s going to be real now. Real uncomfortable, for Democrats who will be tradition-bound to attend a speech guaranteed to contain a lengthy scolding by a president happy to regale the attendees with his take on why the government was shut down for so long, and why border security is so hard to achieve. That captive audience is just one reason why waiting will prove beneficial.

Another is the guest list. Any one of several important figures could have been brought to the stage at a Trump event substituting for the State of the Union, but welcoming them onto that famous House gallery balcony has even more value. Maybe that’s when a few maliciously maligned Covington Catholic High School students and families get a deserved recognition. And most importantly, it would be a fitting occasion to welcome some loved ones of Americans murdered by people who would not have been able to kill if stronger borders kept them out of the country.

So, sure, I would have enjoyed the opportunistically relocated State of the Union. But in sidestepping that tactic for the more traditional approach, displaying restraint and even accommodation of a political foe, President Trump positions himself for the far more important bottom line: fighting for the border security he has promised since he announced he was running for office.

Let mockers enjoy a day of finger-pointing. They will be disappointed when the Trump base does not peel away from him, and positively despondent when they see that once again, he knew exactly what he was doing.