Trump's scores with 'common ground' speech and a can-do view of government

Donald Trump, the most unconventional president of our lifetimes, did a very conventional thing tonight, delivering a message of unity in a soft voice to a joint session of Congress.

This was a speech about what government can accomplish, not a Reaganesque “government is the problem” appeal.

It was a more uplifting speech than his inaugural address, with several appeals for bipartisanship and some lines that could have been delivered by a Democrat. While Trump is not a great orator, he spoke for an hour with confidence and a polish for one who didn’t spend years delivering political speeches.

And this is not the kind of language we are accustomed to hearing from Donald Trump, who on Jan. 20 spoke of American “carnage”:

“We are one people, with one destiny. We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same flag. And we are all made by the same God.”

It almost sounded like a reset, at least atmospherically.

The 45th president signaled that this was a different kind of speech by beginning with Black History Month and a denunciation of anti-Semitic incidents. He hit his major themes—cutting regulations, reducing crime, building a wall, lowering taxes, creating jobs—but without the harsh partisan edge. And while Democrats, who mostly sat on their hands, disagree with much of his agenda, Trump was trying to reassure the audience that things are heading in the right direction.

Even after ticking off what he said were the failures of the Obama administration, Trump told the lawmakers they had “to work past the differences of party” and “united for the good of the country”—a rhetorical olive branch that may or may not be seized by both sides.

Citing Ike’s national highway program, Trump called for a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that could hold some appeal for Democrats. But cutaway shots showed people like Elizabeth Warren refusing to clap.

Trump even called, without elaboration, for “positive immigration reform.”

The president got perhaps his loudest ovation from the GOP side in promising to repeal and replace the “imploding ObamaCare disaster”—and a few Democrats made thumbs-down motions. As on other issues, Trump sketched only broad pictures, but said they would ensure that “no one is left out.”

It was a bit of a laundry list, like every State of the Union, from rare diseases to school choice, and to child care and paid family leave, a special Ivanka interest.

But there was a disconnect with budgetary reality. While Trump touted the major boost he wants in defense spending, he didn’t mention his plan for $54 billion in offsetting domestic budget cuts that the White House announced Monday. For instance, Trump said he would promote “clean air and clean water,” but his budget blueprint would slash EPA’s budget.

Once the pundits are done dissecting the speech, we will return to the more pedestrian debate over the budget.

The budget argument has been raging in Washington for three decades: Republicans want more defense spending, Democrats want more social spending. And while both parties agree that entitlements are a mess, the Republicans want much more aggressive.

This was an issue in the Clinton administration, when Democrats ripped Newt Gingrich over proposed cuts to Medicare that he maintained were simply slowing the rate of growth in the massive health care program.

This was an issue in the Bush administration, when the president couldn’t get his party to hold hearings on his plan to partially privatize Social Security.

This was an issue in the Obama administration, when the president was willing to yield ground on entitlements as part of a grand bargain with John Boehner that never materialized.

But Trump is different. He campaigned on what is essentially the Democratic position: No cuts to Medicare and Social Security, not even in the longer term. But since entitlements are 60 percent of the federal budget, that means the $54-billion in cuts will have to come out of a relatively small portion of the bureaucracy.

Unless, of course, the economy booms. “I think the money is going to come from a revved-up economy,” Trump told “Fox & Friends.” This is the supply-side argument that Ronald Reagan made and that Washington has debated ever since.

Trump’s preliminary budget plan drew negative reviews in much of the media, and not just from liberal commentators.

National Review, which opposed Trump in the primaries, said his blueprint suggests “that his fanciful campaign promises — to solve the nation’s pecuniary woes by targeting ‘waste, fraud, and abuse’ and cutting foreign aid — have not been adapted to fiscal reality. It’s still in the earliest stages, but his plan portends a significant increase to an already massive federal debt…

“The graver menace is our entitlement programs, which at present constitute 60 percent of federal government spending; they are expected to reach two-thirds of federal spending within a decade. The president’s budget, though, is designed to protect the largest of those programs — and not just from cuts to benefit levels, but from any cuts at all. This is silly.”

A New York Times editorial, rather than simply arguing that the president can’t pay for a 10 percent hike in defense spending, says the Trump plan “won’t strengthen America’s security, and might, in fact, undermine it…

“The $600 billion yearly Pentagon budget is certainly not too low, given the drawdown of troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Trump should be asking himself not how to heave more billions at the Pentagon but how to make sure it is spending its existing budget wisely.”

This, says the Times, is “a choice that would harm millions of Americans while shoveling more profits to military contractors.”

A Washington Post editorial focuses more on fuzzy math, saying it’s “distressingly likely that the plans he has would make the fiscal situation far worse.

“Reality check: The combined budget for the EPA and the State Department was only about $46 billion in the current fiscal year. Even eliminating them entirely could not pay for the defense boost Mr. Trump is apparently contemplating.”

But here’s the thing: Trump is a veteran negotiator. This is his opening bid. So the real question is whether he can make a deal with 535 lawmakers.