As judged by snap polls, the feral roars and rebel yells from the GOP backbenches that greeted every other sentence, and the rapturous reaction from the more Trumpian media outlets like Breitbart News, the president’s 2018 State of the Union Address was a big hit on the right. It’s probably true that some of them were mostly relieved that he performed competently in a venue that does not play to his extemporaneous strengths.
But the praise was somewhat less fulsome from those who take the substance of conservative policy seriously — because it was almost entirely absent from the speech. Here’s National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru:
[T]here was almost nothing of substance about 2018. The great exception is immigration, where he laid out a relatively detailed proposal in a way that will strike people without strong views on the subject as fair and sensible. Long stretches of the speech were, however, simply vacuous, as when Trump endorsed higher infrastructure investment and lower opioid addiction rates without saying a word about how these goods would be achieved. These were goals, not policies.
One reason the speech was so heavy on shout-outs to heroes and victims in the audience was that the policy cupboard is pretty bare.
Ponnuru’s colleague Jonah Goldberg was even more pointed in what the speech omitted:
[E]xcept for some laudable bits about streamlining the bureaucracy and improving FDA policy, there wasn’t a hint of fiscal conservatism to it. Trump wants a huge increase in infrastructure spending and an end to the sequester for military spending, but he never mentioned the debt or deficit. Well, there was one mention of the word “deficit” — the “infrastructure deficit.” And he endorsed a new entitlement — paid family leave — while failing to mention any effort to reform the existing entitlements.
Indeed, if there was any lingering possibility that Paul Ryan’s dreams of an assault on entitlements this year would be realized, this speech eliminated them once and for all. Given Trump’s equally conspicuous refusal to mention additional efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare (a major emphasis in his proto-SOTU address to a joint session of Congress a year ago), it may well be that the White House is going along with Mitch McConnell’s inclination to rule out any use of the congressional budget process at all this year.
That is certainly the safest route for a majority party facing an adverse midterm-election-year climate. And perhaps the massive deficit-expanding GOP tax bill is too fresh a memory for Republicans to risk derisive guffaws by pretending to care about fiscal probity.
But it’s bound to bother conservatives who do care about Big Government that so little of their concerns animate this president who is so ferocious toward criminal immigrants and disrespectful foreigners and athletes who don’t stand for the national anthem. If Trump won’t treat fiscal hawks as a constituency worth pandering to in a speech this long, the odds are pretty good that he figures feeding them cultural red meat and sheer partisanship is enough to keep them on the reservation. And if so, he’s almost certainly right.