Democrats just don’t know what to do about Donald Trump. They desperately desire to despise him, but his views are so anomalistic, and his delivery so unorthodox that their partisan punches never land.
Democrats’ dismay was evident in their response to President Trump’s address to Congress. It was, in many ways, an apolitical speech, filled with calls for bipartisanship and laser-focused on promoting policies that help workers.
“If we are guided by the wellbeing of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades,” Trump said.
It was a theme he returned to repeatedly, telling members of both parties that the “time for small thinking is over” and the “time for trivial fights is behind us.” Perhaps those calls could be brushed aside as strategic rhetoric if the policy proposals underlying them were clearly partisan. Instead, President Trump offered a series of legislative olive branches, focusing on ideas like family leave, infrastructure investment, and quasi-protectionist policies.
Democrats, who clearly were expecting something completely different, appeared to have no clue how to respond. Barton Swaim writes for the Washington Post:
The Democrats looked especially awkward. So much of their detestation of Trump arises not from policy differences but from horror at his gaucherie and bizarre rhetorical excesses. But none of that is relevant in a State of the Union-style address. Subtract the issues of Obamacare repeal, immigration and the president’s hard-line policies on domestic security — the latter two of which don’t lend themselves to clear ideological allegiances — and much of what Trump had to say could have been said by any Democratic president. Even on the topic of health care, Trump offered several proposals that, taken on their own, most Democrats probably wouldn’t object to, hence making it rather difficult for them to do what they would have preferred to do, namely glower at the president’s let-them-eat-cake obstructionism.
What were Democrats supposed to do when, for instance, Trump vowed “to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women’s health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure”?
I guess … we’ll applaud? Clap, clap?
Not true clapping mind you, but tepid applause combined icy frowns. It was, quite simply, a ridiculous spectacle. Democrats came in thinking that President Trump made the trip to Capitol Hill to attack them head on, but instead he delivered a big-hearted address aimed at bridging partisan divisions in the name of American workers. Democrats couldn’t respond in real-time and so they stuck with their initial plan—to demonstrate via facial expressions their intent to become the party of resistance—even though it was wildly inappropriate in the moment.
The low point of the evening came as President Trump concluded his address and left the House chamber with one half of the gallery almost empty. Democrats apparently pre-planned a mass exodus the minute that Mr. Trump concluded his speech, refusing to stay and clap, or engage in the common courtesy of waiting on the President to exit.
“You’d have thought that at the two-thirds point, when Mr. Trump hadn’t self-destructed as expected, when instead he was looking less like Alec Baldwin and more like President Trump, that Chuck Schumer might have pulled out his smartphone to tweet the troops, “Walkout maybe not a good idea,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Menninger. “Not this crew.”
Perhaps if Democrats, if only for a moment, would stop their reflexive antipathy toward the president they would recognize that they’re fighting a fiction. President Trump doesn’t abide by traditional political conventions, which means that there are unique opportunities to work across the aisle to get things done. But not if Democrats are too busy heading for the exits.