President Trump will be entering the chambers of the U.S. House of Representatives to deliver a State of the Union address Tuesday night that he hopes will lift his sagging political fortunes. The 45th president has stumbled his way into an approval rating in the mid-30s in the latest Post-ABC News poll, while continuing to be buffeted by a string of self-defeating setbacks. Tuesday is a chance for Trump to repair some of the political damage he has caused the Republican Party and himself; we will soon learn whether he knows how to take that chance.
The president’s most enduring test over the past year came during last November’s midterm elections. Rational observers declared the results to be an unmitigated disaster for the White House and Trumpism in general. The president’s party was routed in safe political havens around the country as the GOP lost the congressional midterm popular vote by the largest margin in the United States’ 240-year history. To make matters worse, if that is possible, Trump Republicans also surrendered more than 350 state legislative seats and a number of key governorships that will prove invaluable in the coming 2020 redistricting fights. The president’s own political protege, Kris Kobach, was defeated in the Kansas governor‘s race, reducing the hapless reality-TV-star-turned-president to bragging about his party’s victories in even deeper-crimson-red states.
One would normally assume that an electoral setback of such proportions would move a politician to reassess the disastrous course on which he had set his party. For Trump, that would require him to move away from a White House strategy focused on the vilification of nonwhite people while concocting an imaginary border crisis, complete with caravans of illegal immigrants infected with diseases and an imminent invasion of Central American gang members so lethal that more troops were needed to guard the U.S.-Mexico border than the number deployed in Syria to counter threats from Damascus, Tehran, Moscow — and the Islamic State.
But as has often been the case during his presidency, Mr. Trump seems poised once more to choose the irrational over the reasonable. After telling Democratic leaders on Dec. 11, 2018, that he would be “proud to shut down the government” over his imaginary border wall, the president promptly did just that while watching his approval ratings take a dive. Trump’s determination to close down a portion of the federal government over a wall that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former House speaker Paul Ryan never bothered to fund during their two years in charge was too much for GOP leaders to take. McConnell warned Trump and his party that “there is no education in the second kick of a mule,” a coded suggestion that shutdowns never end well for Republicans. Eventually, the president caved in and reopened the government. But the damage was done.
McConnell and his fellow Republicans should get fitted now for those new, high-impact football helmets, because it appears the president is preparing them for yet another kick by McConnell’s mule. Trump is hinting strongly that he will build his wall by declaring a national emergency. (The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Lindsey O. Graham, has completed his transformation from McCain Maverick to Trump Flunky by encouraging the president to do just that.) It seems safe to assume the Supreme Court would rule that Trump’s declaration is unconstitutional. Rational Republicans and conservative columnists understand that even after the court rules Trump’s move to be invalid, such an emergency declaration would still set a dangerous precedent for Republicans to fear coming from future Democratic presidents.
Which means Trump’s address will be delivered Tuesday against a grim political backdrop of low expectations and even lower approval ratings. There have been times when other presidents facing similar hurdles have used a State of the Union address to reverse their sagging fortunes. President Bill Clinton’s address to Congress following the Republican takeover in 1994 and at the start of the Monica Lewinsky scandal three years later come to mind. Though Clinton eventually faced impeachment charges, his ability to win over Americans with the help of dramatic national addresses was almost Reagan-like. By contrast, Trump lumbers along like a politically lame, one-trick pony who seems content in doing little more than dragging his party from one self-inflicted political crisis to another. No amount of forced applause or strained smiles from the Republican side of the aisle on Tuesday night will change the perception that the GOP is doomed to dysfunction and defeat for as long as it blindly follows their chaotic commander in chief down the path to political oblivion.