Trump missed big chance as he went for old fear tactics

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President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., look on, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It could have been a moment the likes of which not even Ronald Reagan could have imagined or conceived.

At Tuesday night’s State of the Union, President Trump stayed mostly on script — a good thing for establishment Republicans worried he’d venture off into far-flung minefields involving “Rocket Men” and “shithole” countries.

OPINION

He offered a vision that was sober yet strong, predictably touting his economic successes and putting both our economic and political enemies on notice.

It was, as speeches go, safe. It was, as Trump speeches go, disciplined and therefore pretty good.

But, perhaps in the interest of making few waves, he also failed to seize a once-in-a-generation kind of moment that could have reset the course of his presidency and put even his fiercest critics back on their heels.

Consider what could have been. Trump walked into this year’s SOTU with a unique and timely advantage — a recent policy proposal he announced that could upstage the Democrats’ planned theatrics.

Democrats thought they had him. At the State of the Union, they’d show up with Dreamers as their guests. This was meant to put Trump on the spot, and illustrate for the millions watching that this president was against these would-be Americans, who are at risk of being ripped away from their families and the only country they’ve ever known if Trump and Republicans don’t find a way to save them.

They were brought there to be human grenades, personifications of the president’s intolerance and bigotry — and convincing ones at that, given much of his divisive rhetoric.

But that was before announcing his surprising immigration deal to legalize not just 700,000 but 1.8 million Dreamers, while also giving them a pathway to citizenship they never before had. This was, to put it in Trumpian language, the best deal they’ve ever been offered — even President Barack Obama didn’t propose something this generous or this permanent.

That announcement last week changed everything, or it could have.

Imagine if Trump had walked into the Capitol, and after all the greetings and official welcomes he said:

“Before I get to the speech, I want to welcome the Dreamers here tonight. You are patriots, all. You and I share something very important in common — a belief in the American Dream. I want you to realize that dream, so I’m going to fight for something the previous president did not. I want you to come out of the shadows for good — not just a couple of years so that your futures can hang in the balance of the next president. That’s why I’m proposing legalizing 1.8 million Dreamers and offering you a pathway to citizenship. If you want that, stand up right now. And tell the Democrats who brought you to stand up with you, in support of this ground-breaking legislation.”

Would they really remain seated? Of course not. In fact, the only people who might would have been hard-line Republicans who believe that deal is akin to amnesty.

He’ll remind them later, of course, that the deal comes with other things they quite like, including wall funding, increased border security, an end to chain migration and the visa lottery program. In short, they’ll get over it.

Not only would it have sucked all of the wind out of Democrats’ sails and turned their political stunt back around on them, it also would have reset the months of contentious talk and divisive negotiations that have come to be a hallmark of this nascent administration.

Instead, likely for fear of chipping away at his own 38 percent approval rating, which is provided largely by his devoted but dwindling base, he opted for more of the same nationalist fear-tactics he’s used to talk about immigration since his announcement to run for President.

“For decades,” he said, “open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”

And one line in particular made clear he had no interest in the “unifying” message he’d promised: “Americans are dreamers, too.”

Trump has none of the optimism of Reagan, or the magnanimity of George W. Bush, the natural charisma of Bill Clinton or the eloquence of Obama, so admittedly this moment would not have come easily to him. However, he does have an unparalleled and uncanny knack for showmanship, which is why it’s equally stunning and disappointing that he didn’t see this gift looking him in the face.

Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.

This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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