Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Trump’s Unused Bully Pulpit

As Reagan proved, there’s nothing as powerful as an Oval Office address.


By William McGurn
The Wall Street Journal
August 1, 2017

Not yet a week after the most extravagant Republican Party botch since the Bill Clinton impeachment, Beltway fingers are still pointing. And why not? The failure to make good on seven years’ worth of ObamaCare repeal promises has many fathers.

Take your pick. Sen. John McCain’s pique. The squishiness of those such as Sen. Rob Portman who voted for repeal when it didn’t matter, and then voted nay when it did. Behind-the-scenes undermining by governors such as Ohio’s John Kasich. A GOP bereft of party discipline.

There is truth to all these. Even so, perhaps the most obvious reason goes almost unmentioned: The Republican bills were unpopular.

This does not mean they were bad bills, notwithstanding the many compromises lawmakers included. It does mean that their merits went mostly unsold to the public. This allowed Democrats and their allies to paint the bills as but the latest Republican attempt to rob from the poor ($800 billion in Medicaid cuts) to give to the rich ($600 billion in tax cuts).

Even more astounding is that as this narrative took hold the president of the United States neglected the greatest bully pulpit of all: the Oval Office.

Notwithstanding his flaws, Donald Trump has proved himself able to connect with voters, especially those who voted for Barack Obama, in a way other Republicans have not. But the Trump White House has yet to recognize the unique punch a formal, televised address from behind the desk of the Oval Office still carries, even in the age of Twitter .

Ronald Reagan’s use of the Oval to push his tax cuts through in 1981 is a textbook example. Yes, the Gipper schmoozed those on the opposite side of the aisle. He had to, given that Democrats controlled the House. But as likeable as he was, folks on both sides of the political aisle were skeptical about his proposed tax cuts.

In a July 27 Oval Office address, Reagan made his pitch. In simple language, he gently mocked the Democratic leadership claims that their bill “gives a greater break to the workers than ours.” He said the whole controversy came down to whose money it was—the people who earned it or the government that wanted to spend it. And his call for Americans to “contact your senators and congressmen” to urge them to vote for his tax cuts touched off what Speaker Tip O’Neill described as a “telephone blitz like this nation has never seen.”

Though it’s now popular to reminisce about the warm cuddly Reagan who put partisanship aside, that’s not the way it was seen at the time. The day after his speech, the New York Times reported Reagan had “engaged in a series of partisan attacks on his opponents on Capitol Hill.”

It worked: Two days later the Democratic House approved the Reagan administration’s tax cuts by a comfortable margin.

What does this mean for Mr. Trump? It’s probably too late now for health care. But it might have been a different story if President Trump had used a televised, White House address to explain that the Republican goal was a bill that would help drive down costs, lower insurance premiums, and undo mandates forcing Americans to buy products they don’t want.

Some suggest Mr. Trump does not have the mastery of detail to pull it off. But a president does not need to be a policy wonk. One big thing he can do is simply to push back on the falsehoods.

Imagine, for example, if Mr. Trump had pointed out that the accusation Republicans were cutting Medicaid was classic Swampspeak: In fact, spending would still go up every year, albeit at a slower rate. For good measure, he might have contrasted the Republican faith in the wisdom of the American people with the admission by a chief architect of ObamaCare that it owed its passage to a “lack of transparency” and “the stupidity of the American voter.”

In fairness, Mr. Trump did make calls, bring in senators and speak at his rallies. Even so, nothing quite matches the prestige of an address from his desk, where the president speaks directly to the entire American people. Unlike his rallies, generally limited to his most ardent supporters, even many of those who detest the president would tune in for a prime-time, Oval Office address.

This is not about blaming Mr. Trump for the failure to repeal ObamaCare. It is about pointing him to a huge presidential asset that went unused in a key contest involving Republican credibility.

Democrats are now gearing up to run the same class narrative against the Republicans on tax reform they did on ObamaCare. If the president wishes to avoid another embarrassment, he might put down his smartphone for a moment and start thinking of how to use the Oval Office to ensure the coming debate on taxes is argued on his terms and not the opposition’s.


Article Link To The WSJ: