At least six members of Congress — all Democrats — have announced they will stay away from President Trump’s first State of the Union address next week.
The real news is that most Democrats have decided to attend.
“Why would I take my time to go and sit and listen to a liar?” California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters fumed on television last week.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have no choice but to show up and smile for the cameras. They have to be there because Republican prospects in the midterm elections look dreadful and the most reliable Republican voters remain largely loyal to Trump.
That’s why the audience that matters for this State of the Union speech is Trump’s small base of supporters — the most loyal Republicans, especially the older, whiter, less educated, and evangelical voters. Historically, they have high turnout in midterm elections, which should help Republicans.
But enthusiasm among Trump populists is down based on their poor turnout in the Virginia governor’s race and Alabama special election. Last week, Democrats won a 9-point victory in a special election for a state Senate race in a Wisconsin district that Trump won by 17 points.
Finding the right message for the big audience watching the State of the Union is Trump’s best chance to flip a reality show on the verge of being cancelled.
The big question for this State of the Union is whether Trump can deliver a message to stir his base and avoid a GOP wipeout in the midterms.
The best message available to the president is a celebration of his only major legislative accomplishment — the tax cut plan which gives some benefits to middle-class workers even as it overwhelmingly rewards corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
Here is the problem with that strategy:
A New York Times poll last week found a majority of Americans agree that Trump’s economic “policies had either hurt the economy or had little effect on it; only 38 percent said his policies had made it better.”
Also, talk about the economy might remind Republicans that Trump can’t pass a budget even though the GOP controls both chambers of Congress.
So, the odds are that Trump will make his address into a sales pitch for Americans who have doubts about the tax cut.
It will be an uphill climb.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week found the new law with a 52 percent disapproval and 32 percent approval rating among all registered voters. Among independent registered voters, who the GOP needs to turn out for them in November, the tax law is polling at 52 percent disapproval and just 27 percent approval.
The New York Times poll released last week saw the tax plan’s support at 46 percent, a 10-point jump since December, but still less than the 49 percent disapproval.
While both polls showed some improvement in public opinion since the bill passed, the plurality of voters in all polls remain opposed.
One option might be for Trump to talk about his plan to upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure.
But the infrastructure plan is highly unlikely to come to fruition because the tax cuts drained the Treasury of the money necessary to fund it. A suggestion, from the Chamber of Commerce and others, that these measures should be paid for by raising the gas tax is unlikely to gain traction in an election year.
Another option for the president is to reiterate his famous plan to build a wall on the Mexican border.
The problem with bringing up the wall is that no progress has been made on it. And his own chief of staff, John Kelly, publicly rebuked him as “uninformed” when he made campaign claims on the subject recently.
Bringing up immigration also risks reminding even the most loyal GOP voters about Trump’s hateful comments about immigrants from “shithole countries.” Those words blew up any good-faith negotiations between Congress and the White House to protect the young illegal immigrants brought here by their parents. Close to 80 percent of Americans support allowing the Dreamers to stay.
While the TV audience is critical, there is a second important audience for Trump’s speech — Republican politicians.
They know the president has a 39.5 percent job approval in the latest average of polls by RealClearPolitics. And they know the history of presidents with approval ratings below 50 percent consistently losing seats. President Obama lost 63 House seats with a 45 percent approval rating in 2010. With a 42 percent approval rating in 1982, President Reagan lost 28 seats.
Democrats need to win back 25 seats to claim the House majority. Most political forecasts now indicate there is at least a 50 percent chance that the Democrats will hit that target, or do even better.
As the Weekly Standard noted last week: “In local and statewide races, Democrats are outperforming Hillary [Clinton] and Republicans are underperforming Trump in 2016.”
Last week’s Quinnipiac poll found Democrats with an 11-point advantage on the generic Congressional ballot question asking which party voters prefer to control Congress. And 56 percent gave Trump’s first year in office an “F” or “D” grade — failing or near failing.
The Republican-led House and Senate have even lower approval ratings.
So much of Trump’s first year in office has been consumed by his reality TV showmanship. Right now his audience is turning off the show. Finding the right message for the big audience watching the State of the Union is Trump’s best chance to flip a reality show on the verge of being cancelled.