Later tonight, Donald Trump will deliver the last State of the Union address before the presidential election begins in earnest. If he wants to do something legislatively in 2019, this sets the table. If he’s ever going to “pivot,” this is his last chance. If he wants to prove he’s Mr. “Art of the Deal,” this is the biggest stage he’s going to have. No pressure.
So, what should he say?
Let’s begin with the central premise that Trump’s communication problem isn’t just that he’s saying the wrong things, it’s that people are tuning him out. There is Trump fatigue. It’s a real thing.
To begin the process of earning people’s attention, he must first shock people into actually listening. "He needs to break stereotype in a way that gives the middle of the electorate pause and say, ‘Well, that makes sense,’” Dan Hazelwood, a Republican strategist, tells me.
Although State of the Union addresses generally include a laundry list of issues, this seems likely to be primarily a speech about the importance of a border wall and how to avoid another government shutdown, which will come later this month unless a deal is struck.
Trump could say: “I am negotiator and I am saying to Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer, ‘What do you want?’ And they look at me and say, ‘Nothing.’ So let me extend a hand again tonight: Make any offer. Let’s solve this issue, not kick it down the road again.”
But Trump shouldn’t just end there. Instead, he should use the opportunity to actually make a proposal. This is a chance to speak to the public without the filter of the media interpreting what he’s willing to accept or reject. He should use it.
He should make a good faith offer to pair border wall funding with something—amnesty or infrastructure—that would make some liberals wonder why Pelosi and Schumer are being obstinate. He should make concessions on his position too, reiterating that it could be slats, fencing, or drones in some places. He could even emphasize, “We do not need 2,000 miles of concrete wall from sea to shining sea.” He could turn to Pelosi, sitting behind him, and say: “You’ve said for years that you wanted a solution for the DREAMers. Well, Madame Speaker, here is a chance for you to get that solution. I’m willing to buck my own base and make a deal. Will you do the same?”
The most devious thing Trump can do to the Democrats right now is to make them a “concrete” offer they can’t refuse. If he wants to put Democrats in an untenable position, he should give them what they say they want and then dare them to not take it.
Because if he does, then suddenly he is the rational one. And, for better or worse, many voters have never seen him act rationally on the public stage. It would be jarring but also politically effective—a touch of showmanship for a man who claims to be one of the world’s best showman.
This would be a good start. It’s also probably the only card that he can play. Trump, by virtue of his past rhetoric and behavior, has given up the ability to really go on the offense tonight. He has cried wolf for too long, played victim one too many times, offended our sensibilities too often to move the country by doing so again. A warning of menacing caravans doesn’t pack the same punch when you’re not even half a year removed from the last story of a menacing caravan that turned out to be not that menacing.
This is the difficulty Trump faces tonight. He is a prisoner to his own past impulses.
Just consider an alternate reality in which Marco Rubio had won the presidency. With Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s scandal as the obvious backdrop to the State of the Union, Rubio might use the speech to emphasize the need to rise above partisanship and heal racial divisions. He might then condemn Northam’s endorsement of what many of us see as tantamount to infanticide, and then segue into a discussion about human dignity and the right to life. It would be both effective and really drive Democrats crazy.
Trump does not have the moral authority to accomplish that task.
Instead of running up the score with rhetorical flourishes and finger wagging, he must use the State of the Union address to dig himself out of a hole. He could start by trying to rescue his deal-maker image, both on immigration and infrastructure. He could also strike a positive note by honoring civilians like Candice Payne, a 34-year-old real estate broker who found 30 motel rooms for Chicago’s homeless during subzero temperatures. He could even spotlight the progress he’s made on items under the national radar: from criminal justice reform to prescription drug prices.
The good news is the bully pulpit is powerful, all eyes will be on him tonight, and compromise is possible. The bad news is that the “Sister Souljah moment” is elusive. This Nixon never goes to China, and this president never pivots.