OK. There’s no denying that that was a better speech than any of us expected. Mind you, that’s because expectations were so crazy low. There was nothing in the speech about the size of his inaugural crowd (or the size of his anything else), nothing about the losers or fakers in the media, nothing about the failing New York Times, nothing about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lousy ratings. He managed to sound, for the first time, like a real-life president of the United States.
He also did a better job than expected with respect to the human moments. He handled the tribute to William Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who was killed in the Yemen raid, much more deftly than I would have thought. Owens’s widow seemed to be moved, talking to her husband in the big upstairs. It was clear that his White House could sense that, after Owens’s father criticized Trump harshly over the weekend, they needed to change that story fast, and he did.
Whether it was complete cynicism or not, Trump changed it, through tonight’s visual. It will lessen the questions about the raid, although it shouldn’t, and that fact speaks to the anomaly at the center of the speech, which is that a lot of what he said in this speech constituted the opposite of what his administration has been doing in its first five weeks and what it’s going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next day.
Take, sticking with the way Trump used the audience members, the young woman in the wheelchair, Megan Crowley, who was diagnosed with a rare illness as an infant and wasn’t expected to live past age five. It was a heart-warming story, that her father fought for her and now at age 20 she’s a student at Notre Dame. (Notre Dame! What could be better as a Republican applause line?)
Megan’s story, as Trump said, is without question “about the unbounded power of a father’s love for his daughter.” I’m a father with unbounded love for my daughter myself. But I wonder also about the extent to which it might be about access to decent-quality health coverage that Obamacare is trying to give to Americans who’ve never had it.
The press is going to get carried away here. But I say to you: Match the speech against the budget. The budget is the real skeleton of the state. Speeches are the clothes. You can dress the body in beautiful clothes, but study the skeleton, because the skeleton is what matters.
Trump said great things in the speech about infrastructure. But all that we’ve seen so far is an infrastructure plan that’s a joke. He said something nice about immigrants, but his ICE people are out rounding up people who are beloved in their communities. He said nice things about innovation and research, but the real-life implications of what we’ve seen of the budget will have no money to speak of for any of those kinds of things.
But the big clash point of this speech was Obamacare. You noticed that the Democrats sat still in their seats for that. Trump said he had some six-point plan, blah blah blah; most of those six points were Paul Ryan talking points, and I felt Ryan applauded more wholeheartedly during that section of the speech than any other.
All the Republicans applauded, it seemed, but remember that polls are coming out right now showing that their position on this is now the minority position. I think Mitch McConnell knows this in his bones. I’m not sure that the positions Trump stated tonight on health care are positions that can win 60 votes in the Senate, and I’d wager that McConnell isn’t sure they can, either.
This speech will get very positive reviews. But remember—government isn’t a speech. Today, before this speech, with little fanfare, Trump signed into law an NRA-backed bill that will allow more mentally ill people to buy guns. And remember, there is still Russia. That is not going and cannot go away.
Trump showed tonight that he can sound like a president. That’s not nothing. It’s something he’s never done before. But can he be a president we can respect, even if we disagree? Each day tells us he can’t, and this speech doesn’t change that at all.