WASHINGTON — A famous Zen riddle asks, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” That riddle might be unsolvable, but anyone curious about the sound of one party clapping need only have tuned in to the State of the Union Tuesday night.
To say that Democrats and Republicans received President Donald Trump’s remarks differently would be a significant understatement. At the end of nearly every line of his speech, Republicans leapt to their feet in applause; Democrats sat sullenly, many in black, with folded arms.
Trump paid lip service to the idea of bipartisanship, telling lawmakers he was “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans.”
That cooperative rhetoric contrasted strongly with controversial actions by the White House earlier in the week, including a refusal to impose sanctions on Russia after Congress voted overwhelmingly to do so last July.
In the aftermath of the first government shutdown in years, each party has been quick to blame the other for partisan discord. The sole moments of clear bipartisan support came at times when the president referenced the sacrifices made by members of the military.
With the 2018 midterm elections fast approaching, Congressional Republicans have eagerly seized on any sign of legislative progress. Democrats, conversely, hope that the president’s unpopularity with many voters will lead to big gains in November.
The president’s speech centered on five major issues: jobs and the economy, infrastructure, trade, immigration and national security. Congressional Republicans, still basking in their December tax reform victory, were eager to emphasize economic issues.
Republicans See Strong Economy as Key to 2018 Victories
“Just as I promised the American People from this podium 11 months ago, we enacted the biggest tax cuts and reform in American history,” Trump told lawmakers. As with many lines of the speech, Republicans responded with thunderous applause and Democrats with silence.
Since Trump took office, the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.1 percent from 4.9 percent. Unemployment has been on a relatively steady decline since it peaked in 2009, amid fallout from the subprime mortgage loan crisis. Yet favorable economic numbers have not been enough to redeem the president’s dismal approval ratings.
According to a Jan. 28 Gallup poll, just 38 percent of Americans approve of his job performance. His approval rating is the lowest in modern history for a president one year into his term.
With the president’s popularity at historic lows, the GOP hopes that its tax bill will engender enough goodwill to bring Republican voters to the polls this fall.
Democrats Focus on Sexual Harassment and Intersectionality
Many progressive lawmakers attended the State of the Union speech in all black, a symbol of solidarity with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. The all-black attire also serves as a visual reminder of the many allegations of sexual assault against the president himself.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others wore red pins to honor Recy Taylor, a black woman who was gang-raped by six white men in 1944. Although Taylor reported her rape, the rapists were never brought to justice. Although most Democrats appeared unmoved throughout the State of the Union, members of the CBC, many of whom sat together near the back of the room, were particularly stony.
Other Democrats refused to attend the speech altogether. Thirteen lawmakers boycotted the speech, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Lewis was one of many to announce his boycott after the president’s now-infamous “s—hole countries” comment, referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations.
“I cannot, in all good conscience, be in a room with what he has said about so many Americans,” Lewis told MSNBC’s Katy Tur. “I just cannot do it. I wouldn’t be honest with myself.”
Immigration Controversies Persist
Democrats who did attend the State of the Union seemed eager to emphasize Trump’s polarizing statements on immigration. Democrats have accused Trump of holding Dreamers hostage in exchange for big spending on the border wall. Dozens of House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, brought Dreamers as their guests to Tuesday’s speech.
In his speech, the president advocated for an immigration framework released by the White House last week. This plan would provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, including DACA recipients, or Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children. This aspect of the framework represents a sharp contrast with his previous pledge to end the DACA program.
However, his plan would also provide funding for a border wall and slash the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States, both of which are significantly more in keeping with the draconian policies for which Trump advocated on the campaign trail.
In response, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., asked the Capitol Police to check identification and arrest undocumented people in attendance at the speech. As of this writing, no arrests took place.
The First Lady Makes a Rare Public Appearance
First lady Melania Trump has kept a low profile since reports that the president paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about their extramarital affair. But the first lady returned to the public eye on Tuesday, when she attended the State of the Union in head-to-toe white, a sharp contrast with the Democrats’ black attire. She also declined to ride along with the president to the Capitol, which drew considerable attention from television commentators in the hours before the speech.
The first lady sat near Trump’s four oldest children and alongside the 15 guests of the first family. Those official guests include the parents of two girls murdered by the MS-13 gang, first responders who aided in hurricane recovery, and members of the military who were injured abroad.
In Puerto Rico, Devastation Persists
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., long considered to be a likely contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, brought Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cruz famously clashed with the president last fall over relief efforts on the island.
The island was devastated after being hit by Hurricane Maria last September. More than four months later, hundreds of thousands of homes are still without power.
“I hope Mayor Cruz’s presence at SOTU will remind the president and my colleagues in Congress of our urgent responsibility to help Puerto Rico recover and rebuild. Our fellow citizens must not be forgotten or left behind,” Gillibrand said in a tweet announcing her guest.
Trump mentioned Puerto Rico, but only in a list of places recently devastated by natural disasters. “We are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together,” he said.
A Complicated 2018 Ahead
The president’s attempts to strike a unifying tone Tuesday night appeared wholly unsuccessful with congressional Democrats. With a single-vote GOP majority in the Senate and little hope for bipartisan support on many issues, it is far from clear that the president will achieve the major legislative goals he has set for his administration.
Debates over health care and surveillance reauthorization have also highlighted major disagreement within the Republican Party. Moreover, despite the passage of a series of temporary stopgap measures, Congress has yet to pass a final budget for 2018.
The only thing that does seem certain about the year to come is that partisan tensions will continue to intensify — a problem that could have far-reaching ramifications in the November midterm elections.