Analysis: After a hostile takeover, it's Trump's party now

Local political analyst and associate professor of political science at Emory University Andra Gillespie weighs in on the president's first address to congress.

WASHINGTON — It is now Trump's party.

President Trump's first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night underscored how he has redefined the Republicans' political base and their policy message on issues from trade to immigration to deficits to international alliances. While he struck a sunnier tone than he did in his inaugural address six weeks ago, when he had talked darkly of "American carnage," he once again warned that the nation was threatened with decline at home and threats from abroad.

He had led a political "earthquake" of disenchanted American voters in last year's election, he boasted. "They were united by one very simple but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first," he declared, "because only then can we truly make America great again."

(In the text distributed by the White House, Trump's familiar four-word campaign theme appeared in all caps.)

The hourlong speech was in many ways a conventional presidential address, with a laundry list of proposals, allusions to American history and tributes to American heroes. That's notable in part because so much about Trump's presidency has been unconventional — and because many of his populist, nationalist prescriptions that defy Republican orthodoxy are becoming part of the GOP mainstream.

"My job is not to represent the world," he said as he discussed the U.S. role around the globe. "My job is to represent the United States of America."

He had been cheered when he spoke to CPAC, a conservative conclave he once viewed as so problematic that he canceled his appearance there during last year's campaign. In the ornate House chamber Tuesday, Republican senators and representatives gave him repeated standing ovations, though only a handful had endorsed his candidacy before his nomination became inevitable. (Some of them didn't do so even then.)

In a final sign that his takeover of the GOP, once viewed as hostile, was complete: 84% of Republican-leaning voters in the Pew Research Center poll approved of the job Trump is doing in the White House, a level of support that nearly matches what Barack Obama received among Democrats at this point in his presidency, in 2009, and is a bit better than the backing Ronald Reagan was getting among Republicans in 1981.

"In the first 30 days it's hard to think about how he could have cemented his relationship with the conservative heart and soul of the party any better," says Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC. "I think it's indisputable that he is the political head of the Republican Party."

That said, strains and a spiderweb of fractures in the GOP already are apparent as Trump continues to face allegations about his campaign's ties to Russia and gets more enmeshed in the details of the proposals he had outlined only in broad strokes before. On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned that the president's budget plan to slash State Department funding, an idea floated just 24 hours earlier, probably couldn't pass.

And policymakers in both parties were roiled after TV anchors emerged from a luncheon with the president to report that a "senior administration official" told them Trump was open to negotiating a comprehensive immigration bill, language that typically indicates a path to legal status or even citizenship for undocumented workers.

There turned out to be no such conciliatory language in the president's public remarks about dealing with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States, though. Instead, Trump reiterated his pledge to build a wall along the southwestern border and introduced guests he had invited to sit in the gallery who had seen family members killed by illegal immigrants.

The longest ovation of the night was for the widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens, killed in a botched raid last month in Yemen.

In the first 40 days of his tenure, Trump has demonstrated the power of executive action, ordering limits on new regulations and laying the groundwork for more aggressive deportation of illegal immigrants.

However, reaching his most consequential goals, including a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and an overhaul of the tax code, will require building congressional coalitions to pass legislation. Providing some details about what he wants to see in a big health care bill, he called on "all Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster."

Republicans applauded that line. Democrats didn't.

The tumultuous start to Trump's tenure that has been a textbook reminder of American system of checks and balances. A federal appeals court decision blocked the immigration order he had signed with fanfare; another is still being drafted. In the wake of noisy protests at town-hall meetings, congressional Republicans are struggling to devise a health care plan to replace Obamacare. His national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out of the White House in a controversy about Russia's role in the election that is far from over.

Trump sought to pivot from all that in a speech he read almost verbatim from the teleprompter, a contrast with the freewheeling style he has displayed since he launched his long-shot presidential bid. He started with a mention of Black History Month and a denunciation of anti-Semitic violence, and he avoided his most provocative rhetoric against Muslims and his attacks on the news media.

With his victory in November, Trump made the Republican Party of Main Street and Wall Street also the party of working-class white voters who felt sidelined in a globalized economy. The GOP had long been the party of free trade; the new president denounces multilateral trade deals and already has pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has pursued a long crusade to get control of Social Security and Medicare costs, part of the traditional GOP focus on the deficit; the White House on Monday said the president would keep his campaign promise not to touch those programs.

"Donald J. Trump has expanded the base, there’s no two ways about it," says Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., the first member of Congress to endorse his campaign and still a booster. "The loss of manufacturing jobs, good jobs, going to Mexico and going to China have decimated upstate New York and certainly Western New York and it’s decimated Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. And those workers, the good middle-class families, have said enough is enough."

That, he says, is what put Donald J. Trump in the White House and standing before joint session of Congress.

© 2017 WXIA-TV


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