President Trump's State of the Union Address was, for the most part, quite conservative -- and, I suspect, quite effective with viewers. Whether it will have any lasting impact remains to be seen, but I'd be surprised, given the hyperdrive pace of today's news cycles and the president's uncanny ability to step on his own message. Let's start with some highlights:
(1) Trump's defense of tax reform. As I wrote on Tuesday morning, the president had a precious opportunity to sell his top legislative achievement to a populace that's been warming to the policy, but still has doubts (some rooted in flagrant misinformation). He delivered an extended and detailed rebuttal to the critics, highlighting achievements already realized, and reminding taxpayers that their effective pay raises (80 percent of Americans will receive tax cuts) will start arriving in their paychecks soon. A home run.
(2) On immigration, Trump laid out his four-pronged DACA compromise offer to Democrats pretty succinctly and methodically. It's not unreasonable, and it's hardly the bigoted affront that the Left's race-baiters are claiming:
Four elements of DACA proposal Trump sent to Congress: (1) Amnesty + path to citizenship for 1.8 million DREAMers, (2) securing southern border w/ wall & personnel, (3) ending "diversity visa lottery," (4) shifting toward merit-based system/away from chain migration. #SOTU— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) January 31, 2018
I do wonder if Democrats would be more amenable to this package if the White House were to replace the fourth item with mandatory e-verify, a provision many of them signed onto in the 'Gang of Eight' bill of 2013. As for the president's tone on the subject, I agree with some critics who say he over-emphasized the darkest elements of illegal immigration. At times it did cross a line into demagoguery, from my perspective. That being said, the opposition would prefer that we only discuss the issue through the prism of smiling DREAMer valedictorians; that's not a complete or accurate picture, either. Our borders are not secure, and gang violence is a real issue. Averting our eyes from outrages committed by unlawful entrants does not help resolve our problems and betrays the victims of those crimes:
The vast majority of immigrants -- including illegal immigrants -- are good-hearted and nonviolent. But that doesn't mean that horrors committed by people who shouldn't be here don't exist, or shouldn't be spoken of. #SOTU— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) January 31, 2018
Also, "Americans are DREAMers, too" is a line that delighted partisan conservatives, enflamed partisan liberals, and probably sounded completely unremarkable and valid to most normal people.
(3) Regardless of what one thinks of Trump's North Korea policy, such as it is, his tribute to a defector from that brutal regime's creepy fortress of oppression was remarkable. Here's that entire passage, capped by the escaped dissent triumphantly holding up the crutches on which he fled. Powerful and moving:
And this is an important reminder, too:
The White House did an excellent overall job finding sympathetic people with compelling stories to sit in the gallery, allowing the president to recognize them and share their stories to help illustrate his themes and advance his agenda.
And some lowlights:
(1) From start to finish, Democrats looked like they were attending a funeral. Some didn't stand, and many did not applaud, as the president entered the chamber and made his way to the lectern, bucking a long bipartisan tradition. They rose and cheered when they absolutely had to, but remained seated and stone-faced throughout much of the speech -- including appearing glum or bitter as Trump celebrated unequivocally good news for the American people. It wasn't a great look. We get it, guys -- you don't like Trump and you oppose most of his agenda. But looking downright angry when the president accurately notes that, for example, black unemployment is at an all-time low looks really strange. This made me chuckle:
Tfw you told everyone millions would die but instead they got pay raises and bonuses pic.twitter.com/emTRqMveg9— Comfortably Smug (@ComfortablySmug) January 31, 2018
(2) The president has proposed a massive infrastructure plan to rebuild America's roads and bridges. When this was President Obama's general idea, Democrats loved it and Republicans hated it. The parties now seem to have switched positions. This is why so many people find Washington to be stupid and tedious. In any case, Trump didn't offer any meaningful guidance on pay-fors, aside from a few bromides about public/private partnerships. Many more details will be needed on that proposal. And Trump's passing call for mandatory paid family leave isn't exactly a conservative triumph. This is a good point:
In the same speech Trump touts end to individual mandate, he touts "paid family leave," which is effectively a mandate that workers accept lower salaries in exchange for more time off.— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) January 31, 2018
(3) There was, to my recollection, zero mentions of reducing government spending (despite some positive material about deregulation and holding failing bureaucrats accountable) in the entire speech. The growing national debt -- and the unsustainable entitlement programs that are the largest drivers of our looming debt crisis -- didn't merit a single mention, apparently. There wasn't even small nod to those uncomfortable realities. Disconcerting stuff from a Republican president, with a Republican Congress cheering along.
As for the Democratic response, it was a mixed bag. The optics of a supportive audience are so much better than a sterile, direct-to-camera lecture, and parts of the speech itself were well-crafted. Overall, it struck me as very dark and dystopic in tone -- plus, it takes real guts to have a member of the Kennedy clan (!) deliver remarks that demonize "the rich," shout-out the #MeToo movement, and offer populist denunciations of, uh, politicians -- with what looked like a wrecked car as a backdrop, no less. My expectation is that hardcore Democrats loved it, hardcore Republicans hated it, and anyone else who happened to be watching was wondering what the deal was with the moisture around Rep. Kennedy's mouth.
I'll leave you with these data points that broke late last night, after I wrote the bulk of this analysis. They reinforce my initial instinct that the president's addressed played pretty well. This is not an internet poll, by the way; it's one of those 'snap' scientific polls like the ones published shortly after presidential debates:
SOTU got nearly full approval from Reps and mixed from Dems in our instant poll pic.twitter.com/XujoCK29PA— Anthony Salvanto (@SalvantoCBS) January 31, 2018
I'm not sure which number is more incredible -- 72 percent approval from independents, or 43 percent of Democrats? The manner in which grim-to-petulant Democrats in the House chamber reacted live to the address was almost hilariously out of step with how the overwhelming majority of home viewers perceived it. Now, can Trump stay out of his own way for a few days?
UPDATE - CNN's snap survey is similar to the CBS numbers (roughly 70/30 positive):
CNN instant poll of people who watched the #SOTU:— Matt Mackowiak (@MattMackowiak) January 31, 2018
48% very positive reaction
22% somewhat positive