State of the Union Soap Opera Starts Early, Lasts Until Bitter End

By Debra J. Saunders

February 5, 2020 5 min read

WASHINGTON — All eyes on President Donald Trump during his 2020 State of the Union address Tuesday night were watching for clues that could answer the questions that always surround a big Trump event. Would he call out his Democratic rivals? Would he bring up impeachment? Or, failing that, would he at least make hay of the Democratic Party's complete botching of its Iowa caucus the night before?

And the answers were no, no and no.

Teleprompter Trump showed up and delivered a solid and highly conservative State of the Union speech in measured tones while Twitter Trump stayed home. Then at the close of the speech, after sitting demurely during most of the talk, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi theatrically tore up Trump's speech. It was the ultimate role reversal.

Trump's third State of the Union address and fourth speech before a joint session of Congress was billed by a senior administration official as "a vision of relentless optimism."

As the Senate impeachment trial neared its end, the theme of Trump's Tuesday night remarks, "the great American comeback," underscored that Trump's focus is on reelection. And Trump's approval rating hit a record high - 49% — in the Gallup poll.

According to Gallup, impeachment and the state of the nation might be why half the country believes Trump deserves to be reelected and the other half does not. Gallup also found that 51% of Americans view the GOP favorably, compared with 45% with a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

The scene was set for division. Trump and Pelosi had not spoken for months. Democratic lawmakers dressed in suffragette white. Having recently announced he has advanced lung cancer, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh sat next to first lady Melania Trump, who wore black.

The soap opera began as Trump entered the chamber. Pelosi extended her hand toward Trump, who did not shake it.

As the president began to speak, GOP lawmakers chanted, "Four more years."

In what probably will be the most debated moment of the speech, Trump not only told Limbaugh he would receive the country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom but also directed the first lady to present the conservative talk show host with the medal.

Later, in perhaps the most staged State of the Union ever, Trump saluted Fort Bragg, North Carolina, spouse Amy Williams and her two children for the sacrifices she made while her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams, served on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan.

Then Trump announced that Williams was in the chamber, and the military man descended the steps and embraced his family.

To communications specialist and speech coach Ruth Sherman, it was like a '60s game show. "I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all," Sherman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "It seemed to me not appropriate for the moment, for the majesty of the chamber."

Sherman lamented a lack of decorum on both sides.

Senior fellow at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute Mark Harkins called it an "excellent made-for-TV moment."

Many of Trump's biggest applause lines left Democrats in their seats and not clapping, but at times, the entire room rose to applaud the true hero guests.

Trump used the address to appeal to his base — and reach out to African American and Latino voters ahead of November. To that effect, Trump's guests were ethnically and economically diverse.

Tony Rankins, an African American veteran who overcame drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and prison time, now holds a job and was reunited with his family. Eighth-grader Iain Lanphier, who wants to join the Space Force, stood next to his great-grandfather, Charles McGee, 100, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen.

Of course, Trump talked about his signature border wall, but he also reached out to the middle when he talked about lowering prescription drug prices and paid family leave, Harkins noted.

"I think everyone played to their base and got what they wanted from it," Harkins said in reference to Trump and Pelosi.

But then as his fortunes rose, the impeached Trump kept his cool, and Pelosi was done with that.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at [email protected] or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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