As recently as two weeks ago, it wasn’t clear that this State of the Union was going to happen. Amid the government shutdown and continued brinkmanship between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump on funding for a partial border wall with Mexico, “will the State of the Union happen” became a major subplot, only resolved decisively when the shutdown ended on January 25, after 34 full days.
But the government is only funded through February 15, and Trump used the speech to continue to press his case on the border wall, risking further confrontations and shutdowns in the future.
Most of the speech, though, elided border issues. Here’s who came out ahead from the address, and who fell behind.
Winner: The anti-abortion movement
Trump is an odd ally for abortion opponents. He famously used to be pro-abortion rights, and his past as a promiscuous New York philanderer doesn’t exactly scream “family values”; nor do his and his allies’ hush money payments to reported paramours Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.
But so far, he’s done the single most important thing that pro-lifers can ask an avowedly anti-abortion president to do: appointed judges likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. He appointed Brett Kavanaugh to put a likely vote to overturn Roe in the place of Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote who’d been keeping the precedent alive. It’s not clear whether the new strongly conservative majority on abortion will overturn the precedent outright or instead chip away at it gradually. But the most important impediment to anti-abortion legislation has been removed.
So it was an unexpected bonus for pro-lifers — and foreboding warning for pro-abortion rights activists — that Trump devoted two whole paragraphs of his speech to reiterating his anti-abortion stand, and to call for new legislation:
There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our Nation saw in recent days. Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and dreams with the world. And then, we had the case of the Governor of Virginia where he basically stated he would execute a baby after birth.
To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.
As my colleague Anna North has explained, Mississippi and Iowa have enacted laws banning abortions as early as 15 or even six weeks; those are likelier statutes to generate a Supreme Court battle than a federal ban, which surely won’t pass the Democratic House.
But Trump’s emphasis on the issue is nonetheless a reassurance to the movement he’s already helped so much through his judicial picks. —Dylan Matthews
Winner: Tucker Carlson
Trump’s speech, with its triumphant brags about recent economic news, earned some comparisons to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” optimism, but I think it cribbed more revealingly from another prominent address: Tucker Carlson’s now-famous January 2, 2019, monologue on Fox News.
Carlson has earned his role as court philosopher to the Trump administration on his Fox News show, which like the network as a whole has remained strongly loyal to the president.
As much as any media figure, he’s courted white grievance, as my colleague Carlos Maza explained in the above video. He has railed against “gypsies,” decried immigrants for making America “dirtier” and California a “third world country,” repeated a white supremacist conspiracy theory about white farms being attacked in South Africa, echoed Charlottesville protesters’ chants about non-white immigrants “replacing” white Americans, warned that immigrants are literally diseased, and said that America’s changing racial demographics represent “more change than human beings are designed to digest.”
But he also wants to paint himself as a different kind of conservative. He gave an influential monologue in January decrying political elites as “mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule,” criticizing pure laissez-faire economic policy, and arguing that the American working class (the white working class specifically — he acknowledged that he and fellow conservatives ignored similar struggles in the black community in prior decades) deserved more help from their government.
My colleague Jane Coaston identified the Carlson monologue as a turning point, recasting conservatism from a defense of free enterprise to a kind of white-centered economic populism, where government intervention is more welcome.
Trump’s State of the Union, though, showed how easily one could mimic Carlson’s rhetoric, and claim the mantle of populism and anti-elite rebellion, without making many (or any) concessions on actual policy.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s WORKING CLASS and America’s POLITICAL CLASS than illegal immigration,” Trump bellowed. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
Compare that with Carlson in December 2018: “A border wall would simply create a thriving new market in taller ladders. Jeb Bush used to say that all the time. Everyone in power agrees with him. They’re nodding vigorously from their gated communities.”
Trump has obviously invoked the specter of evil “elites” since his presidential campaign began. That’s not a Carlson innovation. But the rhetoric of contrasting pro-immigration stances with gated communities and lack of diversity for liberal elites — that’s pure Carlson, who last March sneered, “Our leaders are for diversity, just not where they live.”
In the State of the Union, Trump showcased an evolution of Carlson’s brand of populism. He brandishes rhetoric lambasting globalist elites in mansions debating open borders, but leaves out Carlson’s rejection of laissez-faire. What it showed is that you can easily graft the same anti-elite rhetoric onto a familiar agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.
In this same speech, Trump bragged, “My Administration has cut more regulations in a short time than any other administration during its entire tenure.” That’s not a different conservatism. He also touted cuts to the estate tax. That’s 1995-vintage conservatism, not conservative populism of any real kind.
But Trump has made Carlson a rhetorical victor. Carlson won by presenting a new generation’s version of “compassionate conservatism”: a convenient new label that gives the illusion of a new conservatism while bolstering the same ideas Trump and his party have been pursuing all along. —DM
Winner: The Taliban
Trump reiterated his desire to end America’s role in the Afghanistan war — by striking a deal with the terrorist group the US has been unable to defeat for years.
“We do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” Trump said. “And the other side would like to do the same thing. It is time.”
“The other side,” to be clear, is the Taliban. The US and the insurgents — which controlled Afghanistan and harbored al-Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks — are now, finally, talking peace. Last week, the US and the Taliban agreed on the broad outlines of a long-sought agreement that would see US troops leave the country, perhaps within 18 months.
Under the proposed deal, the Taliban would promise never again to allow a terrorist organization to operate in the parts of the country under its control. In return, at least some if not all US troops would leave the country, as long as the Taliban also agrees to a ceasefire and to engage in talks with the Afghan government.
But the reason the Taliban is now willing to sit down and negotiate with the US is not because “it is time,” as Trump said, but rather because the Taliban is more powerful now than it has been since the 2001 US invasion. According to the Pentagon, the group now controls or contests more than 40 percent of the country.
So one reason Trump rightfully notes the Taliban may be eager for a deal is because the terrorists know just how badly Trump wants to get out of Afghanistan — and plans to use that to their advantage.
Here’s how that could work: The Taliban agrees to just enough to give Trump the cover he needs to pull US forces out; then, once the US is gone, the Taliban just does whatever it wants since the US isn’t there to enforce the deal anymore.
That’s the fear that some experts have about the current diplomatic effort. But per Trump’s comments on Tuesday night, the president clearly doesn’t share that skepticism — and the Taliban is surely a winner for it. —Alex Ward
Imagine you’re a Brooklynite who moved to Vermont to enjoy commune living. You live in Burlington, but you still look and act like you’re at a talk at the 92nd St Y and have a question that’s really more of a comment.
You, improbably, get elected mayor of your small city as an open socialist. You ride that success to a seat in Congress. You’re not too different from other House or Senate labor-liberals like Barbara Lee or Paul Wellstone, but you wear the “socialist” label because it seems to work for you. You toil through the Clinton and Bush years, trying to push a centrist-minded Democratic Party left. When a Senate seat opens up, you collaborate with state Democrats and win it easily. You bemoan the compromises President Obama makes in office, and launch an improbable presidential bid to succeed him.
You do way better than expected! And your supporters adopt “socialism” as a positive descriptor too. Some of them run for Congress two years later, one of whom is a veritable genius at social media and manages to make democratic socialism look extremely cool, and not just to people who liked you.
The conservative White House takes notice, and releases a strange report condemning socialism in fairly sloppy terms. Then the Republican president, the most loathed and hated figure within the Democratic Party in its recent history, more despised than even George W. Bush, goes out of his way in a major televised address to attack socialism as an idea, declaring, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Socialism was once a fringe ideology in America. That was clearly already changing before Trump’s speech — Fox News has been running panicked segments about the danger of America’s socialist youth — but being attacked in the State of the Union shows that socialism’s time may have arrived. It’s now a mainstream idea, worthy of the president’s ire.
Who would dare dream of an enemy so helpful? —DM
Loser: Deficit hawks
A strange feature of life in Washington, DC, in the Clinton, Obama, and even (at times) the George W. Bush years was that many politicians and advisers claimed to be deeply worried about the federal budget deficit.
Billionaire and former Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson devoted his life and no small part of his fortune to spreading the alarm. The Clinton administration claimed achieving a budget surplus its major enduring legacy. Democrats savaged the Bush administration for blowing up the deficit through tax cuts and the Iraq War. The Obama administration and House Republicans both claimed to believe that major reforms to prevent durable deficits were necessary, setting the stage for “Grand Bargain” negotiations in 2011 and 2012 as well as the sequestration spending cuts that were ultimately enacted.
That all really happened. I was even there for some of it. And yet now, in 2019, it all feels so charmingly quaint. The president won office as the rare Republican to pledge not to touch Social Security or Medicare — while still slashing taxes for top earners and for corporations. You don’t need much math to know what that means for deficits. And not only that, but Democrats opposed to the administration barely make an issue of it. They have their own deficit-financed plans to expand access to education and health care that they want to pursue.
The State of the Union, accordingly, did not mention the deficit situation, in either a positive or negative light. Indeed, Chief of Staff and budget chief Mick Mulvaney, who pretended very, very hard to care about the deficit as a congressman during the Obama years, told Republicans privately that “nobody cares” anymore:
Trump told supporters 40-50% of speech will be about foreign policy. When asked if the deficit will be mentioned in #SOTU speech, chief of staff Mulvaney said “nobody cares,” per attendee https://t.co/YeBTSdF3HX
— Tara Palmeri (@tarapalmeri) February 5, 2019
He’s right! Nobody cares! And while, as someone who thought deficit mania was a real threat to the economic recovery under Obama, I am in some ways gratified by this shift, it’s also bizarre. The issue that DC’s bipartisan quasi-centrist establishment had for decades anointed as the One True Serious Policy Matter is suddenly … not discussed, at all. —DM
Loser: Tough-on-crime Republicans
The First Step Act, the criminal justice reform measure passed by Congress and signed by Trump last year, is hardly a radical measure. As my colleague German Lopez explains, it “take[s] modest steps to reform the criminal justice system and ease very punitive prison sentences at the federal level,” affecting only the 181,000 federal prisoners, not the millions of state/local prison and jail inmates.
But it was still a step too far for some Republicans. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) labeled it alternately a “jailbreak bill” and “criminal leniency bill.” All 12 senators opposing the bill were conservative Republicans like Cotton or Sen. Ben Sasse (NE).
So it was notable that Trump used the State of the Union to reiterate his support for the bill and for criminal justice reform in general. He invited not one but two former prisoners as guests to highlight: Alice Johnson, a great-grandmother whose life sentence for drug offenses Trump commuted, and Matthew Charles, a Tennessee man also convicted on drug charges who Trump called “the very first person to be released from prison under the First Step Act.”
The conservative move toward favoring criminal justice reform, and being skeptical of prison, predates Trump; David Dagan and Steve Teles’s book Prison Break tells the whole story. But the State of the Union was a sign that Trump wants to continue to be part of that shift (at least for non-immigration offenses) and to resist the efforts by the Cotton wing of the party to reverse course. —DM