This author has been watching State of the Union addresses for five decades, and it must be said that the state of the union—the actual condition of the country, out beyond the Beltway—is good. That is, this year, unlike other years over the past half-century, there’s no Vietnam War, no Iraq War, no double-digit inflation, no recession, no riots, no terrorist catastrophe, no crime wave. To be sure, the nation has plenty of problems, but it has always had plenty of problems; the American condition can never be that much different from the human condition.
So while President Trump’s rhetorical flourish at the beginning of last night’s speech—“We have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission, to make America great again for all Americans”—might not have sat well with many, it’s a simple fact, as Trump said, that 2.4 million new jobs have been created, “including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone.” And yes, the stock market has gained some $8 trillion in value, and it’s true also that, “after years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages.” Or, as House Speaker Paul Ryan said earlier on Tuesday, “Unemployment is at a 17-year low. Economic confidence is at a 17-year high.”
Okay, so that’s the state of the union—the 50 states. Trump might be unpopular, but his policies, in practice, seem popular enough; that is, people are “voting” for him with their “economic feet”—hiring more, investing more, buying more, working more.
Yet there’s also the State of the Beltway. Inside the I-495 highway, every day, Beltway Warriors, left and right, blue and red, suit up to do battle with each other. This battling is so predictable and ritualized that one wag at the Washington Post even provided, in advance of the speech, a plausible list of tweets and comments for the dueling factions. And the news reflects this determinedly disputatious dynamic: there’s no such thing as “conventional wisdom” anymore, only conventional wisdoms, plural.
Once upon a time, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite could say, “And that’s the way it is,” and even if many Americans didn’t agree with him, they had no real voice of their own—they were, truly, the Silent Majority. Yet today, Cronkite is long gone, and few Americans could pick the latest CBS anchorman, Jeff Glor, out of a lineup, let alone know anything that he just said.
Indeed, the “media” has been tagged by the rightward half of the country as the “mainstream media,” or MSM, and that tagging has become synonymous with angry dismissal. Today, a lot of people know who Sean Hannity is, even if they have never actually seen him on Fox News.
Is this a healthy diversity of opinion? Or, rather, an unhealthy cacophony? Like just about everything else these days, that’s in the eye of the media beholder.
Another change we’ve seen over the decades is that TV has become not only politicized, but also Washington-ized. That is, not so long ago, the TV networks felt an obligation to cover world news. After all, they had those many bureaus overseas, and it only made sense to use them. Yet now, the thinning economics of media—the biggest profit center, these days, is Facebook—has meant the closure of many of those foreign bureaus.
As a result, the Beltway media has become more of a mosh pit for insiders. Those insiders, of course, bring with them their own predilections, and these days, that means the Russia hacking investigation—and seemingly little else. As MSNBC’s Ali Velshi said on the air Tuesday, “It’s the one subject that everyone wants to talk about.” Everyone, that is, inside the Beltway, as well as in niched chattering-class enclaves across the country.
To the MSM, the conventional wisdom is that the Russia story is Watergate or worse, and so it’s only a matter of time before Trump meets a Nixon-like fate. Indeed, in the last few days, a cable news-watching couch potato would have seen, many times, a clip from Richard Nixon’s last State of the Union address on January 30, 1974 in which the 37th president said, “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” Those words were then masticated and re-masticated by numerous panelists, all clucking over Nixon’s wrongheadedness, and presuming, then, a similar destiny for the 45th president.
Yet interestingly, Trump himself didn’t play along. In his speech last night, he didn’t mention the investigation once, nor even the Hannity-esque counter-investigation of the FBI’s Deep State doings. In fact, Trump’s only mention of Russia was decidedly hawkish: he put the country in the category of “rivals…that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.” Of course, Trump’s words will hardly dissuade investigators from pursuing their course of inquiry, nor will it deter his many enemies from pursuing their campaign of obloquy. And yet the mere fact that there’s now that counterweight to the MSM suggests that “Russiagate” will follow a much different path from that of Watergate.
In the meantime, the Beltway is having a hard time dealing with Trump—as it always has. It was reported that more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress boycotted the speech, and in fact, most Democrats who deigned to sit in the chamber last night seemed to be boycotting, too.
For example, when Trump said, “Unemployment claims have hit a 45-year low,” Democrats mostly just glowered. When Trump added that African-American and Hispanic joblessness stands at “the lowest rate ever recorded,” the cameras panned to the respective delegations, sitting there stone-faced.
Moreover, when Trump talked about rebuilding infrastructure—a Democratic verity since the New Deal—only a scattered few Democrats cheered. Trump couldn’t even elicit Democratic enthusiasm when he praised the Capitol itself, describing it as a “living monument to the American people.”
And of course, when Trump shifted to his main policy theme of the evening, immigration reform, the Democratic reaction was even stonier. There was even some booing.
One must say that such hostility is not likely to play well in the up-for-grabs middle of Middle America. Yes, in these polarized times, there’s not as much undecided middle as there once was, but still, the Democrats need to be careful, lest they seem to have nothing on their minds but hating Trump. In particular, the recent Democratic fiasco over the shutdown—in which Chuck Schumer & Co. gambled that the country would rally to them over the so-called “Dreamers,” and lost badly—would seem to indicate that they ought to be looking for other, more promising issues.
Yes, of course, the MSM was happy to champion the Democratic case. After the speech, CNN’s Jake Tapper said of Trump that he was holding up one hand as if to reach out, “and with the other hand, a fist.” And Gloria Borger worried that the president’s speech was “quite divisive.” In other words, Trump talking about his agenda is now to be regarded as a threat to social peace.
Yet even if the MSM is running interference for Democrats, the DACA shutdown reminds us that they are at risk of self-marginalization. Once again showing his age, this author is reminded of the phrase “McGovernization,” as in George McGovern, the Democrat who led his party to the left—and also to an epic defeat in the 1972 presidential election.
With McGovern’s fate in mind, the Democrats’ choice of Congressman Joe Kennedy III as their official responder looks all the more strange. That is, the Bay State is hardly in the middle; there’s nothing red or even purple about it. (It was, in fact, the only state that poor McGovern carried back in ’72.)
Interestingly, his physical appearance aside, Kennedy delivered a distinctly un-Kennedyesque speech. That is, none of the soaring rhetoric we associate with either Ted Sorenson or Bob Shrum—oops, I mean, the elder Kennedys. In fact, the young Kennedy’s hurried delivery reminded this Turner Classic Movies fan of the actor John Garfield, he of twitchy intensity.
Moreover, in addition to Kennedy’s, there were four other “official” responses to Trump’s speech, most of them more left than the other.
Long-term, this doesn’t seem to be a winning course for the Democrats. They can win an election on the set of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” probably unanimously, every day of the week. But the country itself is a different story.
Indeed, according to an overnight CBS poll, some 75 percent of Americans who watched the speech approved of it, and 81 percent said they thought that Trump was trying to unite the country. The Democrats and the MSM will have to go into overdrive to overcome that narrative.
Yet in the meantime, out beyond the Beltway, Americans might be developing their own ideas as to the state of the union.
James P. Pinkerton is an author, columnist and political commentator who worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Review, Foreign Affairs, and Fortune.