President Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday was boring. That doesn't mean that it was insignificant.
The most striking thing about the speech is how little it had to do with the goals and principles of the so-called conservative movement or the Republican Party. Since when has Paul Ryan, who flies at taxpayer expense to Wisconsin every weekend to see his children, believed in paid family leave, which he dismissed only two years ago as a "brand-new entitlement" that would bankrupt the country? How enthusiastic is the House Freedom Caucus about spending $1.5 trillion on anything that cannot be used to blow up terrorists? Isn't it the conventional wisdom among Republicans that pharmaceutical companies have no choice but to overcharge Americans for prescription drugs and that having government intervene to lower costs would hurt "innovation"? Is "America First" a no longer controversial applause line?
But Trump is not a conservative or anything but a nominal Republican. He is not some kind of sui generis principled reformer either. His mind works in pictures — gleaming ultramodern airports, vast and efficient factories teeming with vague activity, fleets of powerful battleships and sleek planes manned by grim-faced heroes keeping America's beautiful hard workers safe. For him policy is the art of making those fantasies come true.
Would it really be such a bad idea for Democrats to take up some of the things he mentioned? Many of them were talking points for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders two years ago. Lowering the cost of prescriptions is something that every American who is not in the pocket of Roche or Pfizer should support. Indeed, in the first debate during the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders himself said that pharmaceutical companies were his greatest enemy. Why other countries pay far less than we do — namely because they have universal government-provided health insurance, which makes negotiations simple and one-sided — is not something to which Trump seems to have applied his mind. But maybe someone could do it for him. It's not like he's never gone there before.
When Trump said that he was willing, even eager, to work with Democrats, I think we can take him at his word. The real question is whether Democrats have any interest in working with him.
There I think the answer is obviously no, at least not on anything for which he is likely to receive credit. The president wasted his first year in office serving as an errand boy for Ryan and Mitch McConnell, enthusiastically defending every bad idea Republicans have had for at least a decade. Democrats want him to continue in this vein. So far from using Trump to attack the Republicans, at some level I think it is understood that the best way to limit the president's bipartisan appeal is to use the GOP's appalling lack of vision against him. The only thing he cares about is repealing the Affordable Care Act, cutting taxes, and helping out Wall Street? Great. Union retirees in southeastern Michigan, meet President Ted Cruz. Even if some Democrats decided to act in good faith, Trump could be counted upon to screw up, say, the Beautiful Heaps of Steel Ass-Kicking Jobs and Infrastructure Act of 2018 by insisting that it include funding for the border wall.
Meanwhile, Republicans have nothing to lose by insisting on supporting only those things that can be squared with right-wing economic ideology. They obviously don't care about making inroads in blue states. That is the only possible conclusion to be drawn from their indifferent response to Trump's victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. How exactly they expect to win in 2024 and beyond, when they cannot count on a garrulous defender of harder hits in the NFL willing to expend unlimited political capital on discussions of the American flag and will be forced on run on "entrepreneurship" again, is beyond me. They're not thinking that far ahead. An increasing number of them are quitting soon anyway. Which means that the bank accounts of hard-working pro-family small business owners will never be threatened by the loafers and good-for-nothings at CVS and Burger King who want to have six weeks off work with the babies whose prenatal existence the party is theoretically so committed to defending.
In other words, nothing is going to happen in the remaining three years of Trump's first term except for the sorts of things that would happen if Mitt Romney were in the White House.
This is the stalemate situation many of us have predicted since before Trump's inauguration. He won the White House precisely because he did not run as a conventional Republican, but it is only as a GOP standard-bearer, however unconventional his behavior and rhetoric appear at times, that he is able to govern.