Congress: The Toughest Crowd of Trump’s Presidential Career

Doing, not saying, is the hard part

A speech to Congress requires a level of legislative specificity that is as foreign to President Donald Trump’s nature as self-restraint, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
A speech to Congress requires a level of legislative specificity that is as foreign to President Donald Trump’s nature as self-restraint, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted February 28, 2017 at 5:01am

There is more to being president than hastily drafted executive orders and blustery late-night tweets. Everything during Donald Trump’s initial five weeks in office — from his bleak inaugural address to his scathing attacks on a free press — can be seen as a prelude to his first prime-time appearance before Congress.

This is the moment in a president’s first term when he should be poised to win lasting legislative victories. For Ronald Reagan, it was the 1981 tax cuts; for George W. Bush, it was additional tax cuts and his No Child Left Behind educational plan; and for Barack Obama, it was his economic stimulus program and, ultimately, the Affordable Care Act.

But a speech to Congress requires a level of legislative specificity that is as foreign to Trump’s nature as self-restraint. Speaking to the National Governors Association on Monday, Trump boasted that he is going to offer “a budget of great rationality but it’s going to have to do with military, safety, economic development and things like that. Great detail tomorrow night.”

Details, details

Listening to the president’s tribute to the “great rationality” of his proposed budget, you got the feeling that he has yet to master all that “great detail” that has been promised for Tuesday night.

Trump can be a slave to the teleprompter when he chooses to be. During his inaugural address, there were no weird impromptu riffs on the size of his Electoral College victory or invented-on-the-spot references to nonexistent terrorist attacks in Sweden. But Trump also had a friendly audience arrayed in front of him as he looked out on the monuments from the west side of the Capitol.

In contrast, the audience at a congressional speech can be as tough as a basketball crowd when a rival player is taking a foul shot at a pivotal moment.

Ever since frustrated Democrats under Reagan began syncopating their applause and silences during the annual State of the Union ritual, the goal of the out-of-power party has been to unnerve the president without appearing rude. For a politician accustomed to acclaim, it is hard to get used to hundreds of members of Congress siting on their hands and looking bored during the delivery of sure-fire applause lines.

The safest bet in Washington is that congressional Democrats have spent days plotting how to provoke Trump into losing command. The tactics may not work — and hopefully no Democrat will shout, “You lie” — but the biggest battle Tuesday night may be between the thin-skinned president and his hair-trigger temper.

To legislate is to make choices. And slowly, Trump appears to be learning that, for all his adrenaline-rush addiction to action, you cannot do everything at once on Capitol Hill, even when your party controls both houses.

As Trump said to the governors Monday, using language that he never imagined using on the campaign trail, “The tax cut is going to be major, it’s going to be simple, and the whole tax plan is wonderful. But I can’t do it until we do health care, because we have to know what the health care’s going to cost and statutorily, that’s the way it is.”

The problem is, of course, that the Republicans haven’t figured out how to do health care. And that’s the way it is.

Sure, there is draft legislation being written in the House, but that is a far cry from agreement in the Senate at a time when Republican governors like John Kasich are petrified over draconian Medicaid cuts.

It is dawning on voters, even Trump voters in the Rust Belt, that the catch phrase “repeal and replace” is really a synonym for “Honey, I just lost my health care.”

A recent national Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that support for Obamacare is at its highest level since the Democrats rammed the legislation through a bitterly divided Congress in 2010. It all brings to mind that politically shrewd Joni Mitchell lyric:

Don’t it always seem to goThat you don’t know what you’ve got’Til it’s gone.

As far as legislation goes, it seems that taxes will have to wait for health care and that will have to wait until elves and pixies gambol on the Capitol grounds.

It’s complicated …

When Trump was first contemplating being president as he stared into the mirror in the locker room at Mar-a-Lago, it is unlikely that he regarded health care as anything more than a boring box to be checked to get Republican support. As Trump marveled Monday in a talk to insurance executives, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

But Trump the Builder both understands and cares about infrastructure. Speaking to the governors Monday, Trump began talking with obvious passion about worrying every time he drove through the Lincoln Tunnel (opened in 1937) connecting Manhattan and New Jersey that people might be injured from falling tiles or loose concrete.

Trump promised Monday, “I’m going to have a big statement tomorrow night on infrastructure.”

Statements are grand, of course. But when and how do Trump and congressional Republicans plan to pass a massive infrastructure bill that will be difficult to pay for? Especially since Democratic votes may be scarce with left-wing activists threatening any legislator who cooperates with Trump and the Republicans on anything, even building roads and repairing tunnels.

Maybe Trump will surprise us Tuesday with specific plans and priorities. More likely is a speech that veers from vaporous promises (taxes, infrastructure and health care) to presidential fearmongering (terrorism and unchecked immigration). Either way, the real work — the hard part — will have just begun.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.