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Why I’m More Interested Than Usual In Tonight’s State Of The Union

We’re of somewhat mixed minds here at FiveThirtyEight about the importance of the State of the Union, both its value as a political tradition and the likelihood that it will yield a substantive change in perceptions of President Trump or his agenda. Truth be told, I’m usually a State of the Union skeptic. When the 2019 State of the Union was originally scheduled for Jan. 29, a date when I had a pretty hard conflict, I wasn’t the least bit upset about missing the speech.

This year’s speech is liable to be more interesting than most, however — perhaps even worth spending some of your evening on. (We’ll be live-blogging it, of course.) That’s for one main reason and two secondary but nonetheless important reasons.

The big reason the State of the Union is important: The fight over the border wall isn’t over yet. The reason that tonight’s speech was rescheduled, of course, is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had disinvited Trump from delivering the speech while the government was shut down. Although the shutdown officially ended on Jan. 25, the Friday before the speech was originally scheduled, it nevertheless pushed the timing of the address back by a week.

But the “end” of the shutdown was temporary, as Congress passed a three-week continuing resolution to fund the government, which will expire on Feb. 15 — 10 days from now. So while the political world has been busy considering the omnishambles of Democratic scandals in Virginia, the possible impact of a coffee-store magnate running for a president and so forth, the possibility of another shutdown has loomed in the background.

Trump has essentially three options now, all of which are pretty terrible:

  • He could agree to a longer-term budget deal without border wall money and just move on, which might rekindle anxiety among his base, some parts of which dubiously claimed that the three-week continuing resolution was a “genius” move to force Pelosi to the negotiating table.
  • He could reopen the government but declare a national emergency so he could use executive powers to designate funds to build the border wall, a strategy that could split Republicans in Congress and which would likely be highly unpopular.
  • Or he could decline to declare a national emergency but also refuse to sign a bill to reopen the government unless it included border wall money. This could result in another shutdown or in Congress overriding a presidential veto, which would be another embarrassing outcome for Trump.

Trump might think he has a fourth option, namely signing a deal with Democrats that includes border wall money. But unless he’s willing to make a verrrrrrry generous offer in support of some Democratic priorities, Democrats have basically no reason to go along with that considering that their base is strongly opposed to the border wall and that all of Trump’s other options produce either embarrassment for the president, a split within the Republican base, or both.

So one thing to watch for tonight is whether Trump tips his hand in any of these directions. And if he implies that he wants to make a deal and that Democrats need to come to the table — a strategy that he already tried and that basically already failed — is he merely playing out the string, or does he actually think that he can get a deal done? The more in touch Trump is with the reality of how the shutdown fight played out, the less likely he is to inflict further damage to himself.

The second reason: Trump may try to pivot, and if so, it will it be interesting to see if it’s a full-fledged pivot or a half-assed one. President Trump’s advisers are claiming that the speech will strike a “unifying, bipartisan and optimistic tone” — something that’s typical for State of the Union addresses but not typical for Trump, of course. In theory, a sustained pivot toward the center would be a huge deal and could considerably improve Trump’s re-election chances.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s a more modest question: Can Trump get through the speech without taking swipes at Pelosi or other Democrats, the Mueller investigation, or the news media — and without engaging in fearmongering rhetoric about immigrants? And if he does, can he maintain some degree of message discipline for, say, 48 hours after the speech, avoiding Twitter rants or other ways of stepping on his own message?

This is not a high bar to clear. But it would be out-of-character enough for Trump that it would be interesting to see how everyone reacted to it (though, he did feint in this direction in his first State of the Union).

The third reason: Stacey Abrams has a chance to defy the streak of bad State of the Union responses and further her star potential. In contrast to the State of the Union itself, where the media’s expectations for Trump are low enough that he’s set up to succeed with a merely competent speech, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, in delivering the Democratic response to Trump, is in a position where most politicians have failed. The barriers to delivering an effective rebuttal are numerous: Whatever setting you speak from is probably going to be less grand than the United States Capitol; you don’t really have time to actually respond point-by-point to the president’s speech because it isn’t released far enough in advance; State of the Union speeches are usually long and boring, so nobody is in a patient mood by the time you come on; it’s always harder to deliver a speech without a live audience right in front of you.

But maybe the polarity has reversed — where the “curse” of the rebuttal has become well-known enough that Abrams, the former state representative who narrowly lost her bid to become Georgia’s governor, could also be deemed successful with a merely competent speech. She also has two ways in which her speech could succeed: by placing an emphasis on voter rights and thus make the issue more salient as part of the Democratic agenda, or by drawing further attention to Abrams herself, who could run for Senate in 2020 or — although she doesn’t seem inclined to do so — even for president.

Or maybe not. It’s a hard speech to get right.

From ABC News:

State of the Union address tonight

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