Milbank: Democrats' behavior at the State of the Union was embarrassing

Dana Milbank
on Twitter @Milbank
Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON — It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the Democrats' behavior at the State of the Union was embarrassing.

I take a back seat to nobody in decrying President Trump's cynical and divisive performance. He repeatedly exploited Americans' divisions on race, guns, God, immigration — anything to distract from the broken promises, vulgarity and worse that define his presidency.

But the Democrats, with their childish protests, took the bait. Symbolic dissent is fine, but this was a cacophony of causes: black clothing (for #MeToo), kente ties and sashes (because of Trump's Africa insult), butterfly stickers (for the "dreamers"), red buttons (for a victim of racial crime) and the more bipartisan purple ribbons (for the opioid epidemic).

Worse, dozens of Democrats refused to stand when the president entered the House chamber, forgetting that one stands out of respect for the office, not the officeholder. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., grabbed a middle-aisle seat only to turn his back on the president when he walked past. Democrats groaned, scoffed, heckled and made lemon-biting faces. Others simply boycotted. In short, they did the same sort of things they (and I) denounced Republican lawmakers for when they did them to President Barack Obama.

This matters, because as nasty as Trump's speech was, his first 20-or-so minutes contained an effective message — false, but effective — about how his plutocratic policies have boosted the economy and benefited working people. Democrats need a simple, clear and effective counter to that claim, and it is not to be found in the unfocused protests and reflexive petulance they showed Tuesday and again Wednesday.

Trump's message is straightforward: Businesses are coming home, jobs are increasing, wages are growing and American confidence is returning. There's a simple counter to this, and it has the virtue of being more accurate than Trump's economic claims. (Like the rooster believing his cock-a-doodle-doo causes the sun to rise, Trump takes credit for the continuation of eight years of job growth.) It goes something like this:

Trump promised to bring change to Washington, but instead he brought more politics as usual. Breaking his promises to working people, he enacted a huge tax cut for billionaires and corporations that will enrich him and his big donors. To pay for the billionaires' tax cut, Trump and Republicans will have to make huge cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — on top of changes to health care that will cause millions to lose coverage and premiums to soar for everybody.

Is that so hard? Apparently.

On Wednesday morning, House Democratic leaders went before the cameras to give their thoughts on the State of the Union. They were discursive and aimless.

Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., denounced Trump's "racist, demonizing comments on immigrants" and the absence of any mention of Russian election interference.

Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., said that her "first step" would be the "dreamers."

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hopped from immigration to opioids, budget funding caps, Trump's self-congratulation and lack of vision. She briefly pivoted to the economy ("he pads the pockets of the top 1 percent") before returning to immigration, then Russia sanctions.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chipped in mentions of #MeToo, Trump's insults of African nations, African-American unemployment, air safety, schools, broadband, the environment and clean energy.

All important issues. But when the whole thing was over, 40 long minutes later, the only message the Democratic leaders managed to convey was that they really do not like Trump, for any number of reasons. That there were no fewer than five Democratic speeches in response to the State of the Union only compounded the confusion.

The Democrats' need to keep focus is all the more pressing because of the uncritical devotion Republicans have decided to show Trump, applauding the leader Tuesday night like so many mechanical chimpanzees clapping cymbals, and offering over-the-top praise of his absolutely incredible, greatest-in-history speech. More ominous are their increasingly brazen attempts to protect Trump by taking down the Russia probe.

Now there's the Republicans' step to declassify a memo they wrote (possibly with White House coordination; the leader of the effort won't say) attacking the integrity of the FBI, refusing to declassify a memo by Democrats that would contradict the GOP claims, and ignoring a plea by the FBI (under a Trump-appointed director) that it has "grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." Trump says he's "100 percent" behind this defamation of the nation's premier law enforcement agency for political purposes.

With so many checks on Trump's power failing, it's more important than ever for the opposition party to behave like one — and not a patchwork of disparate grievances.