|Donald Trump, WH photo|
You win a debate by picking your strongest points and harping on them. You lose a debate by getting excessively defensive. Mr. Trump used this speech to set the agenda.
On the one hand, Cillizza's headline is right. Mr. Trump did make some startling statements, and he surely overstated a number of points. He promised that he would never apologize: "We don't apologize." Why not? If you're wrong, admit it like an adult! He said that he hated his own catch phrase "Drain the Swamp," but said that he used it because "Every time I said it, I'd get the biggest applause." He said something he did not like because people cheered? How bizarre! It is entirely proper for journalists to point that kind of thing out to their readers and listeners.
But does Cillizza's criticism not miss the point? He overlooks how Mr. Trump set the agenda. It wasn't how Mr. Trump talked about things, it was what he talked about. Let us imagine that politics in the United States takes the form of a gigantic debate, with thousands of debaters nationwide arguing in many different places, and that people think of this debate as having only two sides: liberal and conservative. Who is winning the debate? We will not know for sure until the next election cycle, will we? Did Mr. Trump use a good debate strategy? That depends!
OK, sure, in an ideal world, debaters would stick to the facts, prove their points, and give reasons against their opponents' points. In any case, that is what I was taught when I was in high school and college (thank you, Barbara Sue Carter, Patrick Micken, Donald McConkey, and my other debate teachers!). Would that not be nice?
The other point about winning a debate, however, is that the winner of the debate is the side that sets the agenda. The side that decides which issues will be discussed and which ones will not becomes the side that decides which points are important. That is usually the side that wins the debate. If you are always on the defensive – if you are always refuting your opponents' points – you are losing the debate. Set the ground, win the battle!
In this speech, Donald Trump was setting the agenda. That was the real point, and critics like Cillizza missed it.
What is on his opponents' agenda? No secret there: Russia, the Mueller investigation, and an impending government shutdown. Awful stuff. That is what his opponents want to talk about. If the agenda stays on those issues, Mr. Trump will be in trouble.
But Mr. Trump had a different agenda: he focused on successes. Consider this introductory point:
"Our Republican majority is one of the most successful in the history of the United States Congress. Now, we must work to keep our majority so we can keep up the fight for American workers, American security, and the American values enshrined in our glorious Constitution and in our great American flag. (Applause.)"
Overstated? Of course. Congress has not passed legislation anywhere near as comprehensive as, for example, the New Deal or the Great Society. Still, Mr. Trump's statement covered just about everything except Mom and chocolate chip cookies. People love a winner, and here are some specific examples of winning that Mr. Trump talked about:
- Job creation
Did that claim overstate the economy a bit? Well, yes. But the economy is in pretty good shape right now, and people usually credit the president for that, so he shifted the agenda away from, for example, Russia, and toward job creation. He avoided the criticisms, and focused on the positive: not defending himself, but instead asserting a positive agenda.
- Wage growth
Again, that overstates things, since wage growth is still very weak, but it was a positive message and there is some truth to it.
- And on the attack about taxes!
"Every single Democrat in Congress opposed our middle class tax cuts. And if Democrats were to gain control of the House, the first thing they would do is raise your taxes. They would raise your taxes. They would take away what we’ve done and raise your taxes. And actually, I’ve seen some of the numbers — very substantially raise your taxes."
That, again, is a little questionable, since most of the tax cuts are going to the very wealthy, but it is still a positive message, and he showed the Democrats to be against it. Since it is hard to put tax increases in a positive light, Mr. Trump's strategy here is clever.
- Attacking some more!
"A vote for House Democrats is truly a vote for open borders — people pouring into our country, pouring in. We have no idea who they are. They’re coming in — open borders. You look at sanctuary cities, where criminals are protected."
In general, Mr. Trump's opponents consistently underestimate him. but this was a very persuasive speech, and it touched on points that greatly interest his voters and core supporters. He did not waste time defending himself against criticisms of foreign involvement, personal corruption, or inefficient administration. Even if he made good arguments on those points, those are his opponents' points, and it could do him little good to focus on them.
Instead, Mr. Trump focused on accomplishments, attacking against his opponents and raising the key issues of taxes and immigration. The speech was an attempt to reset the agenda. Although the mainstream press, such as CNN, largely missed the point, I am sure that his supporters did not.
This speech did commit what we used to call a "straw man" fallacy. I'll talk more about that later.