When the president speaks on national television, the American people expect an explanation of an important action or an attempt to rally them in the face of a major threat. Usually, no response is made by a leader of the opposing party.
Only when the president lays out his program to Congress in the State of the Union address is there a partisan response.
This week, people had the unusual experience of President Trump arguing for one of the key elements of his electoral program and Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer opposing the proposal, building the Wall on the southern border.
Both sides engaged in Washington-style debate, important mostly to political actors there and to the national media. They engaged in the same old, insider blame game that completely ignores average people across the country. Instead, they jockeyed for position in the 2020 elections, but without 20-20 vision.
Trump used much the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that he first unveiled when he announced for president. His remarks repeated threats and events that were easily shown as untrue. Most important, he offered nothing new.
Pelosi and Schumer used much the same moralistic arguments against the Wall as they had been preaching for weeks. Most important, they offered nothing new.
Almost everybody shares real concern about immigration. The U.S. is a land built and enriched by immigrants. At the same time, there are reasonable worries about uncontrolled immigration of people who may be endangered in their home countries or seeking a better life. And we continue deferring action on the undocumented immigrants already in the country.
Trump has responded to legitimate issues and phony concerns, though he seems to think the Wall would solve all problems, while the Border Patrol, which supports him, thinks otherwise.
The Democrats have pounced on his making the Wall into his entire immigration policy and his refusal to end the government shutdown unless he gets it funded.
The American people outside the Washington Beltway have the right to believe the government is not listening to their desire for compromise and progress. The gap between posturing politicians and “us folks” grows wider.
Trump could have seized political control and public support if he had used his speech, not as a prelude to declaring a national emergency when there is none, but as the opening of a comprehensive immigration policy, including the Wall. He would then have been in a position to get his Wall while admitting it was not the full answer.
He might have laid out a policy involving both the Wall and other forms of border protection, helping Central American countries create conditions to remove the need to flee, and a plan leading to citizenship for immigrant children and long-term undocumented residents. Given the low expectations for his speech, that would have been stunning.
Trump would not only have kept his promise to his supporters for the Wall, but responded to a majority of Americans who favor a resolution of current immigration issues. He would not be trying to strike fear, but rather to offer a constructive way out.
Trump has gained a reputation for changing his objectives in the midst of a negotiation, a recipe for failure. A comprehensive proposal in the text of his well planned remarks could have fixed that.
He could also have agreed to end the shutdown if the Democrats would accept the basic outlines of his proposal and open negotiations.
What about the Democratic duo? Instead of limiting themselves to condemning the Trump policy, if he had not made such a proposal, they could have done so. Their tone should not have been relentless opposition, but offering a compromise almost sure to be popular. Instead of letting Trump set the tone of the debate, they could have risen above it.
In one key respect, both sides are missing the point. Wall or no Wall will not determine the outcome of the 2020 election. Voters want government to focus on pressing issues, not simply lurch from one election to the next. They don’t like shutdowns as a political weapon no matter who is responsible.
One way to negotiate out of a stalemate is to “sweeten the pot.” If the debate is only about the Wall, nothing may happen about immigration or much else. Settling other immigration issues at the same time could make possible a deal on the Wall.
Both sides right now are remarkably short-sighted and focused more on their games than on the national interest. The missed opportunity of the national speeches can be revived.
Note: This post extra to usual weekend post.