Trump faces empowered Dems at SOTU
Washington – Democrats now own a stake in the state of the union.
Members of the new House majority get to show off their new clout Tuesday night when President Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address under divided government. Evidence of the changes afoot will be firmly in the television frame, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting above and behind Trump, her status strengthened by his capitulation to her terms for reopening the government.
“In some ways, Nancy Pelosi is the bigger star of the evening than the president,” said University of Michigan’s Aaron Kall, an author of a book about memorable presidential addresses.
The tableau, beamed to more than 40 million people, will tell the story of the 2018 midterm elections, which made Democrats more than just observers and critics of one-government rule. The party controls the House, with Pelosi second in the line of presidential succession.
“We are a co-equal branch of government. He is about to come face-to-face with that lesson,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who serves in House leadership.
Pelosi’s new perch is only one example of how women will surround the president at the annual address. A record number of new female lawmakers, including some the first Native Americans and Muslims to serve in Congress, will dot the audience. Invited guests who represent key Democratic agenda items – climate and the environment, immigration, LBGTQ rights, the plight of federal workers – will watch from the gallery above. They’ll include two former workers at Trump’s New Jersey golf club who have spoken out about his hiring practices, and Ana Maria Archila, the woman who cornered a Republican senator in an elevator to protest Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
And winding through the scene will be nearly a dozen members of Congress with their eyes on the White House in 2020, highlighting the decision Democrats face about who leads them – and, by extension, whether to adopt a far-left or more moderate agenda.
How the Democrats react inside the chamber to Trump’s address will be watched closely. Leaders are advising a respectful approach, for reasons of decorum but also strategy. Pelosi has in the past cautioned Democrats to stay out of the way of Trump’s “slobbering self.”
But the atmosphere inside the House chamber, amped up by the government shutdown and Trump’s presence in the room, could inspire protests from the audience. If Trump mentions a divisive subject, such as abortion, in an inflammatory way, “He should not be surprised that there is an opposite reaction,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said.
“He fires up his people, but he fires up the opposition to what he’s saying or doing or suggesting,” the Maryland Democrat said.
It wouldn’t be the first time the audience has reacted. During a presidential address in 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted, “You lie!” as President Barack Obama spoke about health care. The next year, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and mouthed, “Not true,” when Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance.
On Tuesday night, all eyes will be on a group of outspoken freshmen women who were ready to chant, “Do the right thing,” during a visit two weeks ago to the Senate. Officials in the Republican-controlled chamber stuck close to the visitors and warned them to observe decorum.
They’re not making any promises about Tuesday night. The freshman star of the new Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is bringing Archila, the Democratic activist who last September cornered then-Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator and yelled at him on live television to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Christine Blasey Ford, a Stanford University research psychologist, accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when the two were teenagers in the 1980s. Their emotional testimonies were seen as a crucible for the #MeToo movement and a test for lawmakers. Flake got the committee to investigate, but ultimately voted to confirm Kavanaugh.
Archila said in an interview that she had her own experience with sexual violence as a child. She and Ocasio-Cortez have pledged to wear pins Tuesday night that say, “Well behaved women rarely make history.”
“Let’s not be well-behaved ever,” Archila says to Ocasio-Cortez in a video released Monday announcing the plans.
“That’s right,” the congresswoman responds.
Trump is expected to use the speech to lay at the Democrats’ feet some ownership for decisions about the path forward. His official theme: “Choosing Greatness.”
“Together we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump is to say, according to an excerpt released early. “The decision is ours to make.”
The implied pitch for teamwork is expected to fall on skeptical Democratic ears.
“He just lies. He lies all the time,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said. “I want Democrats to talk about our vision for the country and to talk about the fact that this guy is still threatening a shutdown.”
Stacey Abrams will give the Democratic response to Trump’s speech, a choice by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that reflects the party’s recognition of the importance of black women to their coalition. Abrams narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race to Trump ally Brian Kemp, and Democrats are trying to woo her into running for Senate in 2020.