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Wednesday, March 01, 2017


A piece of the action

by Tom Sullivan

If Donald Trump's speech last night to a joint session of Congress had moments that were "Reaganesque," as Politico's John Bresnahan described it, it was because we've seen this picture before. After the requisite immigrant bashing and more immigrant bashing after that, Trump's promises recalled Reagan's boast that he would expand the military and build a 600-ship navy while slashing taxes and balancing the budget at the same time. We know how that worked out.

There was the usual bragging about things with which he had little to do: business decisions by Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, etc. There was the display of victims of crime by immigrants, low by measure, but meant to impress us otherwise. There were promises to expand school choice (charters and vouchers) and health care choices as well. Except for reproductive choice, of course.

Trump stuck to the teleprompter and refrained from attacking his adversaries. If anything, many of his proposals cut against Republican orthodoxy. Republicans found themselves having to give tepid applause to proposals they really, really do not like.

My administration wants to work with members of both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents that they have paid family leave, to invest in women's health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.
The claims on women's health and clean air and water run counter to actions he has already taken. At Vox, Emily Crockett notes that "family leave" is an expansion of the maternity leave Trump already Trump already proposed. Plans for investing in women's health, she writes, "will be news to women’s health providers." Politico's analysts gave that idea a twenty percent chance of happening.

In the most jaw-dropping, shameless moment of the night, Trump pointed to the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL who died Yemen at the end of January. Michelle Goldberg describes the moment:
As Carryn Owens stood next to Ivanka Trump, tears streaming down her face, the assembled crowd heartily applauded her monumental sacrifice. She appeared overcome. Then Trump ad-libbed, “And Ryan is looking down, right now, you know that, and he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record.” In other words, Owens’ death had a happy ending because a lot of people clapped at Trump’s big speech.
But along with the xenophobia and self aggrandizement, there were promises to restore jobs. "Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways, gleaming across our very beautiful land," Trump promised.
To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States, financed through both public and private capital, creating millions of new jobs.
That is, the kind of federal program he name-checked Eisenhower for will be privatized under a Trump administration. That doesn't have the same effect as direct federal spending and will cost taxpayers in fees what it may save them in taxes. And all this while giving the military a blank check and delivering "a big, big cut" in taxes. Reaganesque indeed. Politico's analysts ranked the infrastructure plan's chances at ten percent chance. But it was meant to impress, and that's what many will remember.

Marcy Wheeler (Emptywheel) tweeted, "That was a good speech. Democrats will underestimate it at their peril." She's right.

Trump hit a lot of the right notes to reinforce for those who elected him. Trump again called the Obamacare "failing," "unsustainable," and "collapsing," and vowed not only to repeal it, but to replace it. Easier said than done. But even now, Democrats are mobilizing to spread the news that Trump means to eliminate the protections under Obamacare. The problem is their permanent defensive crouch leaves Democrats trying to undermine Trump rather than compete for his audience and sell themselves. Trump may be a reality show president, but reality shows are popular. There will be much talk of whether last night's speech was the so-called "pivot" the mercurial autocrat needed to make to succeed as president. But to compete, Democrats need to offer a better product, not just badmouth his. Democrats have got to stop trying to convince voters what's wrong with Trump and pivot to persuading voters of what's right with them. They will need more than their usual lackluster base turnout to gain back ground in 2018, whether or not Trump voters have buyer's remorse.

Trump may be selling snake oil, but he knows how to sell it, and he did last night. One thing I remember from the Reagan and Bush II years: tax rebate checks. How many Americans remember little else? Democrats have to give voters something to fondly remember them by, or at least sell them on the idea that by voting for Democrats there is something in it for them. True or not, Trump is already reinforcing the notion that if they stick with him, they'll see a piece of the action.