Opinion: Trump’s Brigadoon Moment — A Speech That Will Soon Vanish Into the Mist

#NeverTrump Republicans might have been dreaming about State of the Union might-have-beens

President Donald Trump speaks with members of Congress as he leaves the House chamber after delivering his first State of the Union address Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump speaks with members of Congress as he leaves the House chamber after delivering his first State of the Union address Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 31, 2018 at 9:00am

Squint your eyes and imagine that a mainstream Republican (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich) had somehow made it through the gauntlet of Donald Trump’s insults to win the GOP nomination and defeat Hillary Clinton. That mythical Republican president (Jeb John Rubio) might have given a State of the Union address with eerie similarities to Trump’s maiden effort.

President Rubio (or informally Jeb John) would have undoubtedly bragged about the buoyant economy.

After all, the forces powering the stock market higher and the unemployment rate lower are mostly due to the global recovery, the strong legacy of Barack Obama and the business community’s affection for any Republican president who cuts back government regulations.

In his State of the Union, Jeb John would have — like Trump — basked in the applause for the newly enacted tax bill.

Watch: The State of the Union in 3 Minutes

Loading the player...

The anti-populist tax legislation, of course, was a Capitol Hill special with Republican legislators egged on by major GOP donors. And, in truth, we will not have a clear sense of how it is playing politically until the yet-to-be-issued 2018 tax withholding schedules produce adjustments in the size of paychecks.

Our mythical mainstream Republican president would also have used similar language to Trump, who declared, “The state of our union is strong because our people are strong.”

This is State of the Union boilerplate with only the humble Jerry Ford in 1975 having the courage to declare, “The state of the union is not good.”

In fact, one of the biggest surprises about Trump’s address to Congress is that the real 45th president didn’t lard on the adjectives to describe the state of his union.

In our alternative universe, the speechwriters for Jeb John Rubio would have also felt compelled to continue the Ronald Reagan tradition of introducing heroes sitting with the first lady in the balcony.

Emcee at a telethon

Of course, any normal president would have brandished his red pencil to limit these personal vignettes because they do eat up television time. But Trump, who had no problems going into Bill Clinton-esque double overtime, kept rolling them out like a master of ceremonies at an old-fashioned tear-jerker telethon.

But the big difference between Tuesday night’s State of the Union and what might have been said by a standard-issue GOP president was Trump’s lack of interest in passing legislation. With Republican majorities (however imperiled) in both chambers of Congress, this would, in theory, be the moment to keep pushing an ambitious legislative agenda.

Yes, Trump did call “on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.” But Trump devoted almost as much time to denouncing a single gang, MS-13, as he did to plugging the one major legislative proposal that might have won Democratic support.

In contrast to expectations from the 2016 campaign trail, Trump the Builder wants to do infrastructure on the cheap.

The key line in the speech: “Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit.”

Translated into standard English, that means that Trump has no intention of spending anything close to $1.5 trillion in federal money. Instead, Trump — who gave a Bronx cheer to state governments by signing the tax bill that limits deductions for state taxes — expects governors and state legislatures to share in the heavy lifting to upgrade highways, bridges and tunnels.

Why is Trump being so chintzy?

A major reason is that the $1.5 trillion in federal money needed for infrastructure went to pay for the GOP tax cuts. In addition, Trump appears to be reflecting conservative distrust of any government spending. Hence, the loose talk about “tapping into private sector investment.”

In policy terms, the most important aspect of the State of the Union was the lengthy section on immigration. But in dramatic terms, the only surprise was how tepid Trump’s references were to building his phantom border wall.

Classic Trump

What the speech did offer was a classic Trump definition of a “fair compromise” for bipartisan legislation.

The president outlined four pillars of his proposed immigration deal. And — surprise — three of them represent proposals that are an anathema to congressional Democrats and some mainstream Republicans.

In exchange for a very slow path to citizenship for immigrants brought illegally to this country as children, Trump expects to get a border wall, an end to the visa lottery program and the cancelation of most visa preferences for family reunification. While piling on the demands, Trump showed rare restraint in not also insisting on massive subsidies for all immigrants from Norway.

There was a legitimate fear that Trump would use his first State of the Union to up the nuclear ante with North Korea. His model might have been George W. Bush who foreshadowed war with Iraq during the “Axis of Evil” portion of his 2002 address to Congress.

Instead, Trump devoted much of the foreign policy section of the speech to making the obvious — but fully justified — human rights case against the brutal regime of Kim Jong Un. If there was a moment of true national unity, it came when Trump introduced the courageous, crutch-waving North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho.

Of course, this being Trump, there were no references anywhere in the speech to asylum seekers from other repressive countries who are now routinely turned away at the U.S. border. Nor was there any mention of the administration’s plan to send nearly 200,000 El Salvadorians back to that violence-ravaged country.

Any afterglow from the workmanlike Trump speech will undoubtedly vanish with the first semi-deranged tweet from the Oval Office. But there were moments Tuesday night when #NeverTrump Republicans might have dreamed about State of the Union might-have-beens.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.