Last night’s speech was good, presidential, even. The substance was on point and the tone subdued.
But it was all in the future tense and mostly aspirational. Despite the frenetic pace of the past month, Obamacare is still the law of the land; the Iran deal still reigns; ISIS still controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq; Islamic political ideology still thrives; our border security and immigration system remain unreformed; etc., etc.
Messaging speeches early in presidencies should be aspirational to some extent. But when President Trump declared that “The drug epidemic will slow down and stop” and “We’re going to lower the cost of healthcare,” I had to choke back a giggle, because it reminded me of another speech:
I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal …
Unfair, yes, but Republicans have had eight years to prepare for the moment when they could remedy what that very speech unleashed. Congress held vote after vote to repeal Obamacare, for example. So a month into full control of all elected branches of government, they have accomplished a lot, right?
Nope. We have seen fights with the CIA, fights with the media, fights with former President Obama, all-consuming and absurd debates about whether Trump is a Russian spy, etc. This first month has seen many words and lots of promises, but the result has mostly been fruitless friction.
“Get rid of the individual mandate.” Agreed. “Obamacare has failed.” Yes, yes, we know. It is a large reason why you have your job. “Get rid of Obamacare.” So, do it already.
Some aspirations should inspire you to hide your wallet—a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, endorsed by Bernie Sanders at Pat Leahy, for example.
Some aspirations were oversold. The “biggest defense increase in history” is a mere $19 billion more than forecast by the Obama administration.
A focus on aspirations obviated the need to dive into the meat of things like Trump’s defense increases. It meant that he did not need explain how those extra expenditures would help us defeat political Islam. I am all for “extinguish[ing] this vile enemy [terrorism] from our planet,” but political Islam is the ideology that inspires the terrorism in the first place. How will defense spending address that? You cannot bomb an ideology.
A focus on governing would have forced a vigorous defense of the proposed cuts to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Our spending on these agencies has not exactly bought us a better foreign policy or a safer America. The cuts might be good; they might be bad. It all depends on what we cut and how we reform the affected agencies. But America heard nothing of it.
Our national conversation long ago should have pivoted from aspiration. We should be debating not budgets, but how we implement policy. Which changes are working; which are not? After the past eight years, the Tea Party, the 2016 elections, and the GOP seizing control of both houses of Congress and the White House, the GOP leadership should be deep in the weeds of execution. Instead, we have had lots of distractions and platitudes.
Trump should receive a bounce from this speech. He hit many of the high notes expected from a speech like this. The aspirational parts—slashing regulations, eliminating corruption, creating millions of jobs, etc.—were mostly pitch-perfect. The typical partisan aspects of the affair also worked to his benefit: Trump correctly singled out Nancy Pelosi for her role in the Obamacare debacle, and it was especially shameful to see both Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Keith Ellison sit on their hands for the two-minute standing ovation for the widow of slain Navy SEAL Ryan Owens.
But by the end, Trump’s aspirations highlighted an unfulfilled to-do list. The GOP must move from the aspiring to doing. Rhetoric will not cut it. Ask John Boehner.
Kristofer L. Harrison is senior managing director for a macro-economic consultancy. Previously, Mr. Harrison served as an official at both the State and Defense Departments during the George W. Bush Administration.