There is a balance beam in the U.S. Capitol.
It’s kind of like the one in Olympics gymnastics. The president of the United States calls on lawmakers each January or February for a Joint Session of Congress. And everyone must stride down that narrow, wooden beam, striking the right balance.
Tip too far to the left or the right and the president, lawmakers or anyone else involved in the entire affair plunges off.
But this year is different. Never in recent memory has everyone had to navigate that beam so gingerly. The odds are different tonight. President Trump’s speech to Congress presents a whole new set of variables.
Everyone wants to see how this will go down.
Most congressional Republicans are on board with the president for now. They’re expected to greet the president with full-throated exuberance.
Everyone will watch the dynamic of Vice President Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sitting behind Trump on the dais. Over a decade ago, then-Vice President Cheney and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., looked like the Brothers Grimm, hunched behind President George W. Bush. In contrast, Pence and Ryan are happy warriors. Yet remember how Trump and Ryan openly sparred last autumn. Many observers will track Ryan’s reactions to the speech. Too much enthusiasm and detractors could interpret the speaker as a “sell-out” or “in league” with the president. Remember, the speaker represents a district in a battleground state that narrowly favors Republicans. Tepid reactions from Ryan will illuminate “fissures” between the speaker and the president.
TV networks will watch moderate Democrats who face challenging re-election campaigns next year. Expect lots of reaction shots of Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. That’s to say nothing of moderate Republicans who have broken with the president on key issues due to their states and districts. Keep an eye on Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Reps. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.
It’s customary for lawmakers of both parties to squat on aisle seats in the House chamber for hours in advance. During the Obama administration, multiple members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) camped out in the chamber early to score a prime aisle spot. As a result, those lawmakers made sure their constituents spotted them on national TV shaking hands with the president – or grabbing a selfie.
Certainly many of Trump’s loyalists will plop down on the aisle to greet the president. But will Democrats – and especially CBC members – follow their traditional patterns with Trump at the helm? What about Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.? They often hung around for hours on the aisle.
Party allegiance drives some of this. But many Democratic lawmakers also clamored for aisle seats under President George W. Bush. They may not have appreciated Bush’s policies or politics, but they respected the office and the individual.
Therein lies the challenge for Democrats. Some will certainly skip the speech just as they ditched the inauguration. It’s good politics for Democrats in their left-leaning districts. But too much of that will make Democrats appear small and churlish. Democrats must strike the right balance between showing opposition and seizing the moment to emphasize their viewpoints.
Some Democrats will bring DREAMers and undocumented persons as their official guests. Others might invite those with compelling narratives which highlight how they benefitted from ObamaCare.
These are easy contrasts for Democrats to make as they underscore the chasms between them and Trump. The president may not like it (and this one really doesn’t like it), but Democrats are obligated to highlight their differences. That’s how the system works.
But any over-the-top opposition with the entire country watching could be counterproductive for Democrats. The president may note during his remarks the remaining vacancies in his Cabinet. Some argue the Democrats’ strategy to slow-walk nominees has been too much. But it’s really the only item Democrats have in their arsenal.
Democrats cannot go Joe Wilson on the president.
President Obama journeyed to Capitol Hill in September 2009 to deliver a speech outlining his health care reform plan. The president asserted that illegal immigrants wouldn’t be eligible for coverage. An apoplectic Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., then hectored the president, shouting, “You lie!”
It is the era of fake news. Reporters from a swath of news organizations have accused the president and many administration officials of outright falsehoods. Some Democrats might suggest this is the perfect forum to go toe-to-toe with the president should he embroider the truth during his speech. Again, that might resonate back home. But it’s poor decorum and violates House rules to speak ill of the president on the House floor.
Keep in mind that House Democrats voted to “disapprove” of Wilson’s heckling nearly eight years ago.
And then there is the president and how he comports himself.
His words are everything. Trump must be careful of how he responds to any potential Democratic disruptions or reactions he doesn’t like. This is a speech before a Joint Session of Congress, not WWE (although Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon will likely be there). Based on his election performance, Trump needs to court Democrats and swing voters. He can’t just lurch into attack mode.
Trump has been on big stages before. But never one as big as this.
And that’s the irony.
It’s a big stage – but a narrow balance beam.