This analysis from The Atlantic of Donald Trump’s speech to Congress is the best I’ve read anywhere. I’m posting it even though it’s nearly a week old because the issues it treats lie ahead of us, not behind us. Most media comment on the speech missed entirely what David Frum tells us here.
The Three Failures of Trump’s Speech
Glowing reviews of the president’s first address to Congress miss the crucial respects in which he fell short.
Better still, Trump worked his way through more than an hour of television without insulting or demeaning anyone. He did not mention his crowd sizes, argue about his vote margin, or attack the press. Although he again trafficked in misleading or deceptive statements, he eschewed outright lies.
Different people will have different reactions to Trump’s spotlighting of a Navy SEAL’s widow to immunize himself against accusations that he cavalierly and ignorantly ordered troops into a poorly considered combat mission—but clearly, many TV viewers found the moment inspiring and affecting.
These limited but real accomplishments elicited a barrage of praise from cable and social media commentators last night. Donald Trump: presidential at last!
In the light of morning, it’s time for a colder review. Trump did achieve something last night, and something important. But he failed to achieve three other things that are even more important to his presidency—and those three failures will matter much more in the days ahead.
The first failure: There’s still no coherent agenda.
Health care? If Obamacare is repealed, millions of people will lose Medicaid coverage, including many Trump voters in states like Ohio and Kentucky. What does the president propose to do about that? His answer is contained in one single sentence: “We should give our great state governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.”
Tax reform? Donald Trump endorsed “massive tax relief for the middle class.” No such relief is offered by the various plans circulating in House and Senate. House Speaker Paul Ryan in fact is touting a “border adjustment tax” that (while an elegant solution to inefficiencies created by the present corporate income tax) would have the side effect of increasing costs of everyday goods like clothing, shoes, and consumer electronics.
The second failure: There’s still no plan to build a majority coalition to support a Trump program.
Donald Trump’s fierce need for approval has disabled him from acknowledging the strategic fact of majority disapproval. Fifty-six percent disapproval is not an insurmountable obstacle. But how can a leader surmount a difficulty that he insists does not exist?
In 2001, President Bush—elected with a narrow popular vote deficit—reckoned with the enduring popularity of the Clinton economic program by promising that his tax cut would leave the essentials of that program intact. In 1993, Bill Clinton—who had won only a 43 percent plurality of the national popular vote—responded by adopting Ross Perot’s concerns with debts and deficits as his own.
The third failure: The scandals accumulate unanswered.
It may someday seem highly symbolic that Donald Trump delivered his first joint session speech on the same evening that his sons Don Jr. and Eric, and daughter Tiffany, had traveled out of the country to open the Trump family’s newest hotel: a project built and financed by the son of a Malaysian plutocrat with a criminal record.
But here, too, the gamble is: Plunge ahead and hope that nothing too damaging comes to light. Through his long business career of big risks, big failures, and big recoveries, that gambling instinct has propelled Donald Trump forward. It makes sense that he manages his presidency the same way. But never before has he faced such dangerous consequences if his gamble goes wrong. And this time, the people who will pay such consequences are not only Donald Trump’s unfortunate investors, lenders, suppliers, and workers—but the whole of this great nation and its truest friends abroad.