For a minute there, it looked like Donald Trump was going to bigfoot his way back into the State of the Union.
“The president intends to go to the chamber on Tuesday night to address our great nation and give them an update on the state of our union,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway boasted on Fox News on Wednesday. “It would be… remarkably petty for the speaker to disinvite the president of the United States to address the nation that they both serve at the highest level,” she continued.
Ultimately, that’s exactly what she did, and the president backed down, announcing on Twitter: “As the Shutdown was going on, Nancy Pelosi asked me to give the State of the Union Address. I agreed. She then changed her mind because of the Shutdown, suggesting a later date. This is her prerogative - I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over…”
Like the border wall, this State of the Union fight is largely symbolic―the importance of winning the fight greatly transcends securing the actual thing for which he is fighting. It is more a test of wills than it is a skirmish over the actual speech. Moreover, while the public may view this as gridlock or dysfunction, Pelosi’s decision has set the tone for the next two (or more) years.
Trump operates within a very primal worldview. Had Pelosi allowed him to establish dominance—even over what some might consider a trivial matter—it would have demonstrated weakness (on her part) and ultimately invited future provocations. Just as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park tested the fences for weaknesses (“they remember”), Trump was sizing up his worthy adversary. What he learned from that test was that she won’t back down (and she’s gonna stand her ground).
For those who care about institutions, Pelosi’s stance was a welcome development—a rare example of Congress (or Pelosi, at least) exerting its authority as a co-equal branch of government. This is not the first time Congress has defied this president, but it is the most public rebuke thus far.
It’s no surprise that this moment comes on the heels of Democrats taking control of the lower chamber. Pelosi is a rare politician who possesses the moxie to go toe-to-toe with a bully.
But will Pelosi’s actions cause Trump to adjust his tactics? Heretofore, Congress has either acquiesced to the president or quietly worked to undermine him. In other words, while Republicans were in charge, they either gave him a public win, or they let things quietly go away (with the exception of health-care reform, when John McCain stuck it to him). What this means is that we almost never get the climactic moment where he is publicly rebuked. With Pelosi now ensconced in the role as leader of the loyal opposition, the American public (including Trump’s base) may finally see evidence that the executive branch is not omnipotent.
For fans of divided government and checks and balances, this was a very good day.
For those hoping for a quick resolution to the government shutdown (or, at the very least, civility), it’s another story. The most bitter fights (whether in the schoolyard or in politics) tend to occur when both sides believe they are winning (or are on the cusp of victory).
In terms of the shutdown (and, honestly, almost everything else), Pelosi and the Democrats believe they are winning in the court of public opinion—that history is on their side. Despite increasing pressure to yield, Trump believes he is winning with his base, which is all that matters to him. Both sides believe that looking (and acting) tough is vital to preserving a strong image, political survival, and the ability to negotiate future deals.
This story has a cliffhanger: We have a strong and stubborn speaker of the House who believes she is defending democracy itself, and we have an equally stubborn president who fetishizes machismo and feels that backing down from his border-wall pledge would demonstrate weakness. This, my friends, is not a recipe for compromise. Not any time soon, at least.
In a way, this standoff is a microcosm of the last 20 years or so of American politics. As Ezra Klein writes, “When one party is perpetually dominant, the subordinate party has reason to cooperate, as that’s the only realistic shot at wielding power,” but “[author Frances] Lee’s argument is that close competition, where ‘neither party perceives itself as a permanent majority or permanent minority,’ breeds all-out partisan combat.”
As we watch these surrogate battles play out, just remember that it’s not really about a wall or a speech. This is about power, dominance, and a conflict of visions.
Pelosi won this round, but I don’t see anyone blinking or backing down over the big-picture war. This shutdown could last an eternity. Who knows when it will end—or when Trump will get to give his big speech. How about a short video they play just before the Super Bowl? Otherwise, maybe we can kill two birds with one stone and give his speech before we all watch the Fourth of July fireworks. It could be a minute.