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Finley: Give unity a chance

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump shakes hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Vice President Mike Pence looks on, as he arrives in the House chamber before giving his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington.

A call to political unity, coming as it does from the Great Divider Donald Trump, seems comical.

The president has torn the nation apart in his first two years. The State of the Union, the theme of Trump’s address Tuesday night, is now one of perilous disunity.

For Trump to pivot suddenly toward civility, consensus and compromise appears beyond his reach. The task is made more difficult by the reality that resistance to all things Trump is paying huge political dividends for Democrats.

Even before the speech delayed by two weeks because of the bitter government shutdown, Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer was dismissing the president’s message as malarkey. That triggered a trademark Twitter fit from Trump, including the standard taunts and insults, much, I suspect, to the minority leader’s delight.

But even though the request for unity from Trump smells of disingenuity and the initial response from Democrats of self-interest, why not give it a shot?

The alternative is to continue on a course that leads to the destruction of the Republic. How screwed up are we? -- we just witnessed a more than month-long government shutdown that cost the economy $11 billion in the name of blocking $5.6 billion for a border wall. There’s more costly dysfunction to come unless Republicans and Democrats learn to govern, as Trump urged, “not as two parties but as one nation.”

Is that even remotely possible in the current embittered environment? Perhaps—if the focus shifts to issues on which the parties already have some agreement.

Trump mentioned the recent passage of a bipartisan criminal reform package. It is a major accomplishment. And there is more work to be done to assure that the correction system works to both protect society and restore criminals to productive lives.

The president offered other areas where Republicans and Democrats might find common ground , including:

  • Trade. Democrats hated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). So did Trump. He scrapped it and replaced it with the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA). It’s a pact Democrats and labor unions should love in that it for the first time imposes minimum wages on other countries that produce goods for export to the U.S,. as well as other measures to protect American jobs. 
  • Infrastructure. America’s roads, bridges and water lines are deteriorating. A bill to help states and local communities fund repairs is also a jobs bill, and both parties score points back home if it passes. 
  • Health care reforms. Everyone supports funding to finally cure AIDS and childhood cancer, and protect the insurance coverage of those with pre-existing conditions. Trump also asked for legislation to drive down the cost of prescription drugs. In the contentious, irresolvable debate over health care, these are all issues on which consensus should be possible. And the family leave proposal should bring Democrats storming to the table. 
  • Foreign entanglements. Trump’s promised withdrawal from the Middle East should appeal to both Democrats who opposed the military expansion in that region in the first place and Republicans who are weary of nation building. 
  • Immigration. Even on this most divisive issue, compromise should be possible. Trump wants a wall. Democrats want protection for the children of illegal immigrants and a wider door for legal immigration. Start dealing. 

Even when the end goals are similar, the means of achieving them differ greatly. But that’s what mature, honest negotiations are all about.

Perhaps huge, sweeping deals on the most contentious matters are out of the question. But if Trump can sustain the productive tone he struck Tuesday night, and if Democrats can take their eyes off 2020 for a minute, some good work on the smaller stuff can get done. 

Of course, if my aunt had different parts she’d be my uncle. I’m anything but pollyannish. Trump is Trump, and every third Democrat is running for president.

But we shouldn’t stop hoping our leaders will give unity a chance.