WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday follows a midterm election that flipped the House to Democrats and a longest-ever 35-day partial government shutdown that ended only when he folded on his demand that a bill to fund the government include $5.7 billion for a border wall.
Part of Trump’s appeal to his base stems from his refusal to back down.
This time, however, Trump would do well to stand before the joint session of Congress and admit he lost the House and lost the shutdown battle but sees a path forward where he can get some of what he wants by recognizing the new lay of the land. Win-win.
The president’s blunt, take-no-prisoners style is getting stale. He’s starting to sound like your standard old-school, double-talking pol. So why not surprise the chattering classes with some actual candor?
That’s not what happened when Trump announced the deal to end the shutdown in the Rose Garden on Jan. 25. White House staff stood by and applauded as the president announced he was “proud” to announce a deal to end the shutdown — acting as if he had achieved something.
To the contrary, Trump allowed some 800,000 federal workers and an untold number of contractors to miss paydays — even though many worked throughout — in a bid to win funding for his border wall. But he got nothing after inflicting all that pain.
His poll numbers went down. GOP senators who voted for a spending package to keep the government running (because they believed Trump would sign it) saw that they cannot rely on Trump in a pinch.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi felt no pressure to compromise. Republicans who so recently disdained the very notion of compromise were gobsmacked by her ability to refuse to budge. And when Pelosi’s intractability worked, Democrats emerged emboldened by her ability to beat Trump in a battle.
Trump has signaled that he is prepared to recognize the new reality. He likely will declare a national emergency that could enable him to raid pots of money to pay for his wall — if the courts don’t stop him. That would be a face-saving gesture, and it’s worth a try, but even Trump shrugs about his likelihood of prevailing.
Trump also has taken to arguing that his administration has been able to build or rebuild miles of border wall without the contested border funds. He’s right — but it makes you wonder why he didn’t just sign the spending package to avert a shutdown.
The deal Trump signed expires on Feb. 15, and it’s clear that few in Washington have the stomach for a second partial shutdown. Trump could use the State of the Union to make clear that he won’t risk the paychecks of federal workers and contractors in a war he can’t win.
So maybe it’s time for the proud president to admit that he did what he could to win $5.7 billion for a border wall, but the impenetrable barrier he envisions is a promise he can’t keep. No one would doubt he tried. Few believe he can succeed with another shutdown, and maybe people might even listen harder to what he has to say.
That would take Trump’s pugnacious personality off the table and give him free range to talk about what his administration has done.
The economy is strong. Entrepreneurs have less to fear from Washington regulation, and the GOP tax cut gave U.S. businesses added incentive to invest at home. January saw creation of an additional 304,000 jobs for the 100th consecutive month of job growth. Wages are up, which means the working class has enjoyed gains as well. There’s a lot of good news in America.
The White House released an excerpt from the address Friday afternoon. The president will say, “Together we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
The tone is supposed to be bipartisan and optimistic. But really, who is going to buy that without a frank admission that Trump realizes he has to make nice? And not just on Feb. 5.
Imagine how strong the State of the Union might appear when Trump isn’t the focus of it.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.