Hoosier Democrats can brood and stew all they want about the demise of the hate crimes bill in the General Assembly or the shelving of an independent redistricting commission. But the 2018 mid-term election is going to be about one main thing: President Donald J. Trump.
There may be some other topical issues that will surface, but this will be a referendum election. On the face of it, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats have been dealt a pretty good hand, further evidenced by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy becoming the ninth House chair to announce he won’t seek reelection. So much so that there is talk about a blue wave, or a pink wave. Predicting a wave had been a fairly reliable thing in the past. Howey Politics began publishing with the 1994 Republican wave. Since then, we’ve forecast correctly several others: Democrats in 2006 when they picked up three congressional seats here, and the Republican/Tea Party wave of 2010 that provided their super majority foundation.
And then there was 2016, where we sensed a Democratic wave developing in June, only to have it break the other way for Donald Trump in November. It was akin to Lt. Col. Billy Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” where we goaded California surfing legend Lance B. Johnson to surf in a Viet Cong-infested coastline because the waves split in two directions. “It’s unbelievable, it’s just tube city,” Lance says, while glancing at the tree line for Viet Cong snipers. Kilgore snaps, “Charlie don’t surf!”
But in 2016, “Charlie” – i.e. Donald Trump – was surfing both waves. He could insult ethnic groups, threaten to shoot someone on 5th Avenue, target Gold Star mothers and POW legends, then surf to the greatest upset in American presidential history.
So on Tuesday night, I borrowed a page from President Reagan’s “fellas,” in this case the triumverate of James Baker, Edwin Meese and Michael Deaver, the latter who knew that optics could more profoundly impact voters than words. There’s the legendary example of a bad news day on CBS news for the Gipper at the lips of chief tormenter Dan Rather. But the volume was turned down, and Deaver delighted in the images.
I watched the first half of President Trump’s first State of the Union with the volume mute, and Tom Waits playing on my Pandora. This is a president with a 35% approval rating addressing a Congress with about 9% popularity. I saw an African-American family seated near First Lady Melania, overcome with emotion as they were honored. There were military chief petty officers praised, a cop and his wife who adopted the son of a heroin addict lauded. And the motherlode, the North Korean defector who survived a dash through a bullet-riddled DMZ to freedom. As the House chamber erupted, he waved his crutches.
“Well I’ll be damned,” I thought. Deaver would be proud.
About 45 minutes in, I turned on the volume of the speech that would last 75 minutes. What I saw was Donald J. Trump, reality TV president, holding court. He was in his zone as Vice President Pence and Speaker Ryan looked on approvingly. This was reality TV. The sphinx-like Melania was there in a white suit. Rep. Nancy Pelosi looked distraught when the president called for Washington “to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer looked like a card shark sizing up “Doc” across the poker table. These optics were sensational for Trump, and bad for Democrats. Even U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who delivered a decent rebuttal in front of a muscle car, seemed to be weirdly frothing from the mouth. And there were four more rebuttals.
So much for Democratic unity.
Jimmy Kimmel would interview porn starlet Stormy Daniels later in the evening, but this was a tiny little subplot that drew scant attention on Wednesday’s morning shows. Stormy had released a statement denying Donald Trump had ever had sex with that woman. A friend tweeted, “Never trust a porn star.”
Earlier in the day, Gallup put out new Trump approve/disapprove numbers in all 50 states, and here in “Importantville,” Trump stood at 44/51%. Bad numbers here in Indiana. But watching the optics and knowing Hoosiers so well, Trump wouldn’t play well in Hammond, Gary and South Bend, and large parts of downtown Indy below the 22nd floor GOP headquarters. But in “outer Indiana,” in Connersville, Seymour, Warsaw, Monon and Versailles, the base was lapping up the optics. He’s tellin’ it like it is. He’s draining the swamp and sticking up for the little guy.
A year and a half earlier, Trump declared in Cleveland that “I alone” can stop crime. In his inaugural address a year ago, he described “American carnage” in an address widely described as “destopian.” On Tuesday, after 11 school shootings across the U.S. in January, President Trump was cunning enough to realize that the audience was bigger than his 35% base. The Las Vegas and Texas church massacres were far off in the rear viewmirror. So he discarded the steel wool he had been using to scour every American bruise, nick, cut and laceration for a year, and preached “unity.” The reality president still preached divisive immigration policy and issued ominous rhetoric on North Korea, and at one point intoned, “Americans are dreamers, too.” That played well across Hoosier Trump country.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz, a frequent Trump critic, observed: “This speech represents the presidential performance that Trump observers have been waiting for – brilliant mix of numbers and stories, humility and aggressiveness, traditional conservatism and political populism.” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni warned that somewhere between the wolf in Grandma’s frock, Pinochio and the AT&T sales guy, “Our president lives in a world of sand and wind and make-believe, where the merest gust can alter the shape of everything, and Tuesday night’s remarks – especially his appeal for ‘common ground’ and his vision of ‘all of us together’ as ‘one American family’ – should be seen in that shifting, swirling, fantastical context.”
Yes, the words still lie, but the optics deceive. If you’re a Democrat, Tuesday’s optics weirdly glistened. There was little unity. There may be a wave, but we don’t know which way it will break, and whether Charlie will be surfing or shooting.
— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.