Last night, President Trump and the Democratic leaders of each house of Congress addressed the American people in primetime. Almost nothing new emerged from the nationally-televised exchange, as the partial government shutdown appears destined to stretch on indefinitely. Each side more or less reiterated the points they've been making ad nauseam, blaming one another for the ongoing impasse. A few thoughts:
(1) The president, thankfully, did not invoke emergency powers, an idea he and his team had floated in recent days. If anything, his decision not to travel this dangerous route was the biggest news of the night. In my preview post, I wrote that I hoped he would not push the legally-dubious 'emergency' button, and I'm grateful that he did not. He also did not give away the store with a lopsided offer to Democrats, such as proposing $5 billion in barrier funding in exchange for a DREAM Act. Unfortunately, he didn't really make any offer to the Democrats, which could have at least applied some pressure on them by batting the proverbial ball back into their court (on the plus side, he did list a litany of elements of his proposed package, including multiple ideas that have nothing to do with physical barriers). Instead, he placed full blame on them for the partial shutdown, which most people do not believe, and restated his requests, urging everyone to renew negotiations tomorrow. He said nothing to alter the existing trajectory. Democrats also simply recited their oft-stated demands, offering no new middle ground ideas for anyone to consider. It all seemed like a waste of time -- something that Trump reportedly predicted earlier in the day on Tuesday:
(2) A major component of the lack of progress was the fact that Trump and the Democrats once again talked past each other, emphasizing divergent points. While the president devoted most of his content to the underlying issue of illegal immigration, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer focused on the effects of the shutdown. Even as many, or even most Americans, may agree with Trump that fairly dramatic action is needed at the border, disapproval of shutdown brinksmanship is overwhelming. For this reason, I still believe Democrats occupy the political high ground in this fight, even though I disagree with them on substance and believe they're being needlessly recalcitrant in their spiteful pursuit of total victory. But again, Trump didn't seem to change the calculus last evening.
(3) Critics often fume when President Trump recites tragic examples of innocent Americans killed by illegal immigrants, blasting him for unfairly demonizing the broader population of immigrants (who, we are often reminded, are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native born citizens). While I wish Trump would discuss these issues with more nuance, every single example of an illegal immigrant murdering a citizen is a bona fide outrage, doubly so when the perpetrators have crossed into the US illegally on multiple occasions, or have been shielded by backwards "sanctuary" laws. These stories are real. The people affected and harmed are real. Trump is right not to forget them; their stories and voices matter. We shouldn't make policy based on emotionalism, but it's galling to see many on the Left frequently rely on emotional stories in their rhetoric, but dismiss the the mention of these anecdotes as bigotry on parade.
(4) Democrats have been unable to explain why their previous support for an array of border security and enforcement enhancements no longer seem to apply, particularly as it pertains to barriers (a word Trump used far more than "wall"). They say they want more time to negotiate on security, but Trump understandably doesn't believe they're acting in good faith. They want him to reopen the government, surrender his leverage, and then resume talks. Is there any chance they'd suddenly agree to barriers under those circumstances? Possibly, but many conservatives are rightly skeptical. For his part, Trump has not made an adequately compelling case about why this moment justifies a shutdown-for-wall showdown, a point Philip Klein makes here. Nevertheless, an AP fact check accurately notes that Democrats are partially responsible for this shutdown. Meanwhile, just as President Obama and the Democrats got awfully indignant and preachy about DREAMers after Republicans took over the House in 2011 after doing nothing on the issue for two years, the same critique can apply to the GOP now.
(5) One of Trump's best points was exposing Schumer's voting record on border security, accurately noting that Democrats' posture changed based on one overwhelming factor: His election. Another strong passage was his puncturing of Pelosi's dumb, preening assertion that the border wall idea is "immoral," which is easily refuted by referencing everyone's reliance on walls for various forms of security. I also had this exact thought as soon as Schumer lectured Trump about policy differences never being worth a shutdown:
It is a little rich to see Schumer attacking the morality of shutting down the government over immigration policy......a year after Schumer and Senate Dems shut down the government over the Dreamers. #Hypocrisy— Brian Riedl (@Brian_Riedl) January 9, 2019
Then again, Schumer lost that confrontation.
(6) On optics, the president raced through his delivery, which was flat and stilted. He seemed ill-at-ease throughout the short address. The Democrats were worse, standing awkwardly close, behind a single podium, each staring intensely into the camera as the other gave separate mini-speeches. This is pretty brutal:
It's appropriate to call journalists to account for focusing on "optics" rather than substance. But considering how substance-free tonight was--from Trump and from Schumer and Pelosi--perhaps we can be forgiven for noting that the two Democratic leaders appeared to be embalmed.— Jeff Greenfield (@greenfield64) January 9, 2019
On the plus side, a million memes blossomed as a result of this terrible stagecraft. My small contribution:
When you think you can sneak into the house after staying out too late, but Mom & Dad are up waiting for you in the living room pic.twitter.com/TOqINd1DaP— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) January 9, 2019
In short, it all felt so much smaller than the largeness of the stage. It was a dull duel of reheated arguments, some of which may have been new to low-engagement viewers, but none of which were game-changers. So we forge ahead with the dysfunctional status quo. Advantage: Democrats. Don't believe me? Read this and this. I'll leave you with perhaps the most succinct compelling argument of the night, offered by someone who didn't participate in the televised spectacle:
McConnell’s focus in this response and his speech earlier are the simplest, strongest points for GOP:— Matt Whitlock ???? (@mattdizwhitlock) January 9, 2019
? This shutdown impasse is over 1/10th of 1% of government spending
? Virtually every Democrat leader has supported the barrier concept pre-Trumphttps://t.co/uXoD1XQbKw
UPDATE - You-know-who found new ways to alienate and distract in her own response to Trump, given on the most-watched explicitly liberal cable news show. Pelosi's headaches are just beginning:
Hoooboy https://t.co/ggy3tYdfIa— Stephen Miller (@redsteeze) January 9, 2019
Illegal immigrants are ‘acting more American’ than US law & border enforcement officers. Quite a take. https://t.co/gZcsiUFNsa— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) January 9, 2019