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On A Scale Of Pivot To Game-Change, What Did We Think Of Trump’s Speech?

In this week’s politics chat, we discuss how President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress changed the political landscape (if it did). The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone, to our post-not-really-the-State-of-the-Union politics chat. And a special welcome to Perry for his first chat!

Perry, just fyi, these chats are where we don’t use any data and just speculate wildly.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I have read them.

micah: lol … well-played.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Welcome, Perry! I’d also like to thank my other colleagues for joining me on this glorious day. Thank you.

perry: I’m excited to be on Team FiveThirtyEight.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): The chats are not team sports, though, Perry. This is every (wo)man for himself.

But we’re really glad to have you in the gladiatorial ring with us, speculating wildly.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Just make sure not to form an alliance with Micah. He’ll double-cross you.

micah: OK, so we’re going to talk about how Trump’s speech on Tuesday night sets up the politics/policy fights in the future. So this chat will be mostly forward-looking, but let’s start with your topline thoughts on the speech itself. Go!

clare.malone: Topline thought is that Trump gave a speech that laid out a lot of ideas for legislation that we have yet to see plans for, which is interesting — and it’s a product of a campaign that was short on actual policy discussion because of the wild optics of the whole affair.

harry: The majority of Americans who watched had a “very positive” reaction to the speech, according to a CNN insta-poll. That’s not unexpected — people who support the president’s party are more likely to watch State of the Union speeches. Of course, as our colleague Ben Casselman noted this morning, Trump was fairly radical in his policy positions, even if not in his tone.

natesilver: I didn’t see the speech live — I watched it after the fact, after I’d read a lot of reactions to it, so that might color my impression. But I thought it was an effective moment for Trump, and I’ve been sort of amused by commentators who have been trying to deny that it was an effective speech. It may or may not be a sign of a “pivot,” but one has to give credit where it’s due if one wants a more “normal” presidency.

perry: On policy, I recommend Ben’s piece. Trump didn’t offer a lot of new ideas. But some of the old ideas that he highlighted — from his campaign and inaugural address — are pretty big in their own right, from repealing Obamacare to the travel ban. On politics, the speech made me start thinking (begin wild speculation here) that he could win a second term if he speaks and acts like he did on Tuesday. He sounded so much more like a normal president than usual.

harry: This was a “pivot” moment. But it doesn’t mean that Trump is pivoting. This is merely a moment in time. The question is whether Trump likes being treated well by the press and decides to copy this behavior going forward.

clare.malone: Oh, Jesus, a “pivot” chat. How many of these have we had?

micah: I don’t think we ever actually fell into the trap of declaring something a pivot, though.

clare.malone: Here’s what I’ll say: Trump’s presidency is not just lived at podiums as other presidencies have been.

micah: We’ve mostly been critical of other people for declaring pivots.

clare.malone: What he did on Tuesday night was certainly calm and deliberate in the fashion that we expect from politicians, but he also exists as a presence on the internet — will the Twitter claims stop, for example? So, I think I will wait to see what he does on that front before I call it a pivot.

natesilver: Here’s the thing, though. Half of the pivots aren’t really pivots, but are a result of the conventional wisdom having become overextended and then having to be pulled back.

micah: But I think Perry’s right that if Trump behaved like he did on Tuesday night for an extended period of time, that could have a huge effect on his fortunes and the political world. It just seems like the odds of that happening are infinitesimal.

natesilver: Sure. But the zeitgeist — or, well, the people in my Twitter feed anyway — have pretty consistently overestimated the degree of political turmoil that Trump was in and underrated his skills as a politician.

micah: So you’re saying that I was right when I alone argued in a chat a couple of weeks ago that it was too soon to declare his administration in disarray?

clare.malone: No.

harry: Someone is fishing for a compliment. His name is Micah Cohen.

micah: I’m fishing for an “I was wrong.”

clare.malone: Wait, because of one speech?

natesilver: I don’t think it was just one speech. The resignation of Michael Flynn and the halting of the executive order on immigration were very serious problems. And they happened in quick succession. But since then, things have calmed down a lot.

micah: Right.

clare.malone: So, in two weeks they’ve solved their problems?

harry: It took two weeks to say the administration was in disarray.

micah: Of course not, but two weeks of problems weigh just as much as two weeks of no problems.

What Harry said.

harry: There’s less “news” coming from the White House. That’s actually a sign that things aren’t as bad as some would have argued.

clare.malone: Well, if the standard is “no one resigned,” then, sure, I guess it’s no longer in as bad a shape.

micah: They clearly still have problems.

clare.malone: OK, but this is supposed to be forward-looking, right?

natesilver: I mean, there are like three separate but overlapping questions here: 1. How much political turmoil is Trump in? 2. How arrayed or disarrayed is the White House, as an organization? 3. How usual or unusual is Trump’s conduct? I think these questions tend to get conflated, especially Nos. 1 and 3.

micah: But Clare’s right — let’s look forward: Even if Trump doesn’t follow through on the tone from Tuesday night and goes back to throwing bombs every other day, does the speech get him anything?

natesilver: It shows that he has multiple gears as a politician. Which I guess we sort of knew already, but Tuesday night was probably the most effective use of “presidential Trump” to date, perhaps along with his rather gracious speech on election night.

perry: What I wonder from Tuesday night is: First, Trump has low approval ratings for a president in his first month; does the speech help move them up? Second, usually a president uses higher poll numbers to push his agenda and insist that Congress bend to his will, because of that support. I’m not totally sure what Trump wants from Capitol Hill. I did not leave Tuesday night thinking that he is desperate for a health care bill to pass the way President Obama was in 2009.

clare.malone: On the approval numbers, I’m pretty open to Nate’s/others’ theory that maybe we’re entering a phase of political life in America where presidents won’t have very high approval ratings because of partisanship. But these coming months will be an interesting test of that vis-à-vis Trump’s legislative agenda, however that ends up taking shape.

harry: Yeah, also, on Perry’s point about Trump’s legislative priorities: We were talking on the live blog about memorable or important joint session and state of the union addresses. I had some trouble thinking of one, and I’d argue that the most important one happened nearly 200 years ago, the one containing the Monroe Doctrine. Usually, they don’t have a big impact. As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein noted, speeches are really more about sending a signal to Congress. So then the question becomes, “What was the signal Trump sent to Congress?” On the one hand, you could argue that Trump really didn’t give much of a sense of where he wants his partners on Capitol Hill to go. On the other, the tone of his speech perhaps suggests to his party that he’s willing to calm down and actually try to govern.

micah: Agree with Perry that the speech didn’t do much to clarify Trump’s legislative priorities.

clare.malone: He did get specific about getting rid of regulations, though. The Food and Drug Administration drug approval part stuck out to me, in particular, because he wants to get rid of certain testing rounds for drugs, which is a pretty radical change in protections for American consumers.

natesilver: My view is that there’s a fairly wide range for where Trump’s approval ratings could end up in six to 12 months, but that range contains upside and downside cases. Historically, presidential approval ratings tend to revert toward a mean of 45 percent to 50 percent. So expecting Trump’s approval ratings to decline further — as sometimes happens in the first six months of a president’s term — might be wrong since they’re already pretty low.

perry: I left on Tuesday night thinking that maybe Trump’s “signal” was that he will defer to Capitol Hill on a lot of policy issues (tax reform, the Affordable Care Act) but wants them to know he will continue on his Trumpism agenda, much of which involves the executive branch anyway: limiting U.S. involvement in wars abroad; fighting illegal immigration; deportations; the travel ban; his general pro-police, pro-military, anti-Black Lives Matter posture.

natesilver: He did sort of psych-out the media into expecting an immigration pivot when there wasn’t one. Guess you can’t trust “a senior administration official,” even when that senior administration official happens to be Donald Trump!

harry: Two notes: 1. Perry reminds me of what John Kasich was supposedly told, that if he was Trump’s vice president, Trump would be in charge of “making America great again,” while Kasich would be in charge of governing. 2. To Nate’s point: Rarely trust leaks. We should know that by now.

micah: Yeah, and for all the talk of a gentler tone, Trump’s comments on immigration were pretty inflammatory, and that nod to compromise never really materialized.

perry: There was no pivot on immigration, the travel ban, etc. Not to sound too much like Nate, but the media is obsessed with itself. And Trump pivoted by not bashing the media. Hence, his tone was softened, the media declared. It really wasn’t on most issues.

clare.malone: There were shades of his convention speech in that he brought as guests people whose relatives had been killed by immigrants. It was a more highly glossed sheen on “American carnage.”

micah: “American carnage with an ice-cream cone.”

natesilver: Yeah, in some ways, this is Politics 101. Dress up fairly extreme political positions with the auspices of politics as usual. And it’s sort of a wonder why Trump doesn’t try this approach more often.

clare.malone: One might say that it’s not in his nature to be disciplined for any extensive period of time. And this approach requires some wrangling of his natural Trumpian tendencies.

micah: Right. Ben and I were talking this morning, and one thing he said was that this shows that Trump can get a “win” basically whenever he wants by just acting normal for a short period of time.

clare.malone: Were the president not proven to be so capricious a person, I think, of course, the White House would be trying to employ this strategy more often.

natesilver: Well, yeah, that’s the question. We know that Trump’s A game isn’t bad, but how often is he playing his A game?

harry: Let me play a little devil’s advocate: Is Trump’s A game that good? Or is it that his A game is so much better than his normal game that he benefits from low expectations. Put another way: If his A game becomes his regular game, will it still have the same effect?

clare.malone: Lotta words right there, young Harry.

natesilver: I liken Trump to a poker player who is on tilt 80 percent of the time. The 20 percent of the time he’s not on tilt, he’s pretty dangerous, because there’s an added element of unpredictability, even if he isn’t quite doing things by the book. He’s also going to go broke in the long run.

micah: Well, he’s amassed a pretty big pile of chips in the meantime.

natesilver: Oh, let’s not go too far and think Trump is a world-class politician either. I think he’s mediocre and inconsistent, but also somewhat underrated by the people who cover him.

clare.malone: Trump benefits from lowered expectations, but at the end of the day, he doesn’t actually say that much much of the time — his comments on health care reform, for instance, were sort of amazingly empty of substance. And that’s an issue that has long dominated American politics. He’s dangerous when he’s riding a particular wave of the culture well — i.e., attacks on the media. But whether or not that A game on cultural issues translates in the long term into political success remains to be seen. People might get tired of his shtick and just want to see results.

harry: I do worry that we’ll be saying “people will get tired of his shtick” in 2021 when he’s inaugurated for a second term. But what do I know? Maybe they will.

perry: Looking a bit forward, I’m not totally sure where this speech takes us. A normal president would have one big idea in the speech and go campaign around the country for it. I’m not sure what the big idea was in that speech or that Trump cares to talk about one idea in a focused way. The revised travel ban is coming. It sounds like the White House delayed that because they liked how the speech was being covered. But that could quickly get us back to “does Trump’s staff know what it’s doing?” and “is Trump mistreating marginalized groups?” And liberals/Democrats/lawyers/courts will mobilize against Trump.

micah: OK, so that’s a good transition: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the Democratic response — not so much former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s rebuttal as how Democrats generally are responding to Trump’s speech and whether they’re more or less organized than they were for the Neil Gorsuch nomination, for example.

What are Democrats doing, and is it smart?

clare.malone: Democrats are basically acceding that the speech was OK cosmetically — Trump wasn’t raving — but saying that it still contained extremist views of how America should be governed.

harry: On Beshear, these rebuttals rarely matter. They tend to be ridiculed — see Bobby Jindal and the staircase or Marco Rubio and the water — but they aren’t that big of a deal. As such, I thought it was perfectly acceptable to have Beshear give it. I will say it was interesting that they went with a white male from a state that shifted heavily to Trump instead of someone who was black or Latino or from a state that shifted to the left versus the nation as a whole.

natesilver: Only something like 20 percent of Clinton’s voters were white men.

harry: According to the SurveyMonkey exit poll, 25 percent of Clinton voters were white males.

clare.malone: I mean, they wanted to make their frontman someone who had seen the ACA be successful, right?

micah: Yes. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said as much after the speech.

perry: In the broadest sense, Democrats are doing fairly smart things. They are fighting Obamacare repeal hard, which is important to their base for both substance and political reasons. They are going to fight Gorsuch, but really keeping their grass-roots people more focused on Obamacare, which is more winnable. And they are trying to keep the Russia story going, because that is a place where the media and the Republicans might join them.

micah: So Democrats probably want to move past the State of the Union news cycles pretty quickly?

clare.malone: Well, it seems like it might be swallowed up by another executive order pretty soon, right?

micah: Yeah.

clare.malone: So that’s not necessarily a big worry.

natesilver: Or anything. These speeches don’t usually drive the news for more than a day or two.

clare.malone: Right … we all watched or blogged it, but a lot of people are kinda like, oh, a long speech — I kinda get the idea of what those are like. What’s next? People respond to more kinetic news events than speeches.

perry: Yes. Trump seemed traditional in that speech and said things that maybe were dramatic in policy but were stated in more unifying ways. So I assume that Democrats will wait till Trump goes to his more unorthodox behavior and react to that.

micah: But this does show that Democrats could be screwed if they focus too much on Trump’s tone rather than his policies, right? Because if Trump does ever manage to consistently behave more normally, they’ll be boxed in.

clare.malone: Yes, that ^^^.

harry: Wasn’t that sort of one of the lessons of the 2016 campaign? Clinton focused a lot on Trump’s demeanor. It didn’t work out very well for her.

natesilver: I’m not sure I’d draw too many analogies from Clinton’s campaign. She succeeded in making Trump’s favorability ratings very low. She didn’t give quite enough voters a reason to vote for her, however.

micah: That’s what Harry’s point is, right?

harry: I’m saying Democrats would be right to focus on policy, not demeanor. I’ll add that Trump’s favorability was already low!

natesilver: Yeah, and I think the case isn’t as applicable to what Democrats have to do now. Pure opposition might be a perfectly fine strategy when the other party has all the levers of power. You just have to be smart about your tactics. When Clinton was a presidential candidate, by contrast, pure opposition wasn’t enough and voters needed an alternative.

perry: I think Beshear was trying to link tone to policies. (Trump’s tone is mean about immigrants, and that leads to travel ban.) I think that is hard but more effective. Trump during the campaign was able to suggest that Clinton was dishonest, therefore her policy promises should be ignored.

harry: I concur with Perry.

clare.malone: Well, there is low-hanging fruit with Trump when it comes to things like his “Wall Street Cabinet,” which is something Beshear mentioned. It’s getting voters to read the dissonance of Trump’s rhetoric and then his choices of personnel or policy, as you may spin it.

harry: I guess what I’m saying here is Democrats should, as Perry and Clare have pointed out, try to make the connection between policy and attitude. They could argue that his attitude is as dismissive of others as his policies are. If you don’t make that connection, then Trump seems more presidential, and his policy may seem more normal too.

micah: To close: Final thoughts? Biggest questions?

perry: My biggest question after the speech is how Republicans react. The Republicans on my Twitter feed liked him on Tuesday night. Rep. Darrell Issa said recently that there should be a Russia investigation. (He’s backtracked a bit on that since.) Issa is not Susan Collins. Trump needs Republicans to stop publicly saying things like that. I wonder if the speech helps make sure his party not only votes for Trump (like on the Cabinet picks) but does not undermine him in other ways.

natesilver: To sum up a bit: The speech was an effective one, but also not that important given the lack of policy substance. The question is whether Trump can repeat that performance going forward.

harry: We’re a month in. It’s nearly two years until the midterms and nearly four years until the next presidential election. This is a small blip on the radar, unless Trump can do what he did on Tuesday night over and over again.

clare.malone: I stand by everything I said above and ever.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.