KEVIN LEININGER: When Trump tries to be reasonable, it’s his opponents who look like extremists

House Speaker Nancy Pelolsi, who joined other female members of Congress in wearing white to honor women's suffrage, gestures at President Trump during Tuesday's State of the Union address as Vice President Mike Pence looks on. (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

President Trump began Tuesday’s State of the Union address by calling for an end to the “politics of revenge, resistance and retribution,” and for the next 80 minutes exacted a subtle but effective vengeance on his political opponents. By seeming (more or less) reasonable, Trump — who has helped exacerbate Washington’s toxic atmosphere — made them look like the hard-line extremists.

Trump, locked in a budgetary battle to the death with congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall, not only made an effective case for border security but, by inviting relatives of people murdered by illegal immigrants, forced Democrats to applaud for the very people whose grief proves the callousness of their open-borders movement. It was a cynical maneuver, to be sure, and probably won’t prevent another government shutdown in a couple of weeks. But a CBS poll indicated that 72 percent of viewers supported Trump’s border-security argument — a response no doubt influenced by Trump’s recognition that most of the politicians who support lax immigration enforcement do so while protected by security guards and even walls and fences.

There was Trump, correctly pointing out the growth in job creation and lower unemployment among minorities and women under his watch, while most Democrats seemed somehow troubled by the good news. The loudest applause Trump received from Democrats all evening came when he acknowledged the record number of women in Congress, which gave members of the white-clad crowd a chance to cheer for themselves.

Despite Trump’s insistence that “there are is not a Democratic or Republican agenda, only the agenda of the American people,” the divisions and rancor Trump now says he wants to eliminate are not the product of intemperate rhetoric, although that certainly makes compromise more difficult.

But what sort of compromise is possible between those who support the right to abort a child up to the moment of birth and possibly beyond and those who call such barbarism what it in fact is? By opposing late-term abortions, Trump made the extremism of the other side obvious.

Some sort of compromise might in fact be possible on immigration — if Democrats were willing to budge on funding for barriers — but Trump offered little but words as an incentive. Many Democrats applauded his support for paid family leave, infrastructure improvements, lower drug and health-care costs and the elimination of AIDS within 10 years, but what has any of that got to do with immigration?

Trump was right to insist the two parties should work together for the good of our one nation, and his prediction that the United States will never be a socialist country elicited scowls on the faces of some of the Democratic Party’s rising stars. But the truth is that some of those socialist ideals are gaining in popularity, and Trump missed an opportunity to point out the staggering cost of such Utopianism, not to mention its deviance from traditional American self-reliance.

Maybe that’s because he wanted to avoid talk of the need for thrift or the federal debt, which has ballooned since he took office. But then, the Democrats don’t want to talk about such things, either.

Even before the speech began some pundits were calling it the kick-off of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the address was indeed heavier on politics than policy. But because policy flows from political success, the fact that 76 percent of viewers approved of the speech according to a CNN poll indicates Trump’s less-combative approach may bear fruit.

That’s not to say some of Trump’s now-familiar narcissism didn’t creep in Tuesday. Hinting that the strong economy is attributable to him alone and may not survive if he is undermined by partisan investigations undermines the very point he was trying to make, and at times did so successfully: that the state of the nation remains sound, despite all the nonsense.

But have no fear: History predicts that some of the leaders who worked very hard to be civil Tuesday will be unable to behave like adults for long, especially with people already lining up to challenge Trump. So the next State of the Union speech should at least be more exciting to watch, if not more productive or palatable.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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