Donald Trump could be a much more popular president than he is. The mogul’s first month in office was a marathon of unforced errors — most of which could have been averted by the observation of a few best practices:
(1) Don’t let right-wing bloggers write your executive orders.
(2) Avoid telling demonstrable lies.
(3) Don’t hesitate to condemn hate crimes.
(4) Accept that you are worthy of love, even if your electoral margin and inaugural crowd size were run-of-the-mill.
(5) Never tweet.
When the president isn’t running afoul of these rules, he has a few things going for him. The man is a talented self-promoter. And when you sand off the edges of his right-wing populism, it has the potential for majority appeal: His narrative acknowledges the economic insecurity of America’s working families and offers reassuringly simplistic answers for how broad-based prosperity can be restored.
On Tuesday night, Trump offered an impersonation of the more popular president he could, theoretically, become. Trump began his speech by calling for unity in the face of anti-Semitism and bigotry. And he ended it without ever having mentioned the “fake news” media, Hillary Clinton, or Vladimir Putin’s more admirable qualities.
Instead, Trump laid out an agenda that was vague enough to be palatable to many Americans who don’t own MAGA hats. The president called for “tax relief for the middle class,” “a level playing field for American companies and workers,” a “merit-based immigration system,” a “$1 trillion investment in the infrastructure,” an Obamacare replacement that provides “better health care,” “school choice,” fewer murders, “paid family leave,” affordable child care; and “clean air and clear water.”
If Trump were capable of exercising message disciple — and the congressional GOP were united around a detailed version of the agenda he described — this could be the beginning of a successful presidency.
The trouble for Trump, and his party, is that neither of those things are true.
Congressional Republicans can’t find consensus on the issues that were supposed to bind the party together (repealing Obamacare and cutting corporate taxes), let alone on Trump’s wholly unsolicited proposals for infrastructure spending and child-care subsidies.
And while Trump’s resolute vagueness may earn him warm reviews, it did nothing to advance his legislative agenda. The GOP needs Trump to get behind a specific Obamacare proposal — and use his bully pulpit to browbeat dissenting Republicans into submission. Instead, he merely reiterated his commitment to keeping the parts of Obamacare that people like — while scrapping the ones that they don’t (which are mostly necessary to retain the former).
On tax reform, the president proved even more useless. Right now, the GOP’s tax plan is faltering amid controversy over the border-adjustment tax — a measure that would lower taxes on American exporters but (arguably) raise them on importers. In his speech, Trump articulated one rationale for this tax:
Currently, when we ship products out of America, many other countries make us pay very high tariffs and taxes – but when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them almost nothing.
But he never actually named border-adjustment — or any other specific measure — to address this problem. In fact, after several paragraphs lamenting the inequities of global trade, this was the closest thing Trump offered to policy proposal:
I believe strongly in free trade but it also has to be FAIR TRADE.
Trump turned in a decent performance Tuesday night. But the vacuousness of his vision, the pathologies of his personality, and the ideological divisions within the GOP will prevent him from ever becoming the kind of president he just played on TV.