It’s highly likely that the Democrats had prepared a unified strategy in advance for reacting to the SOTU. It probably went something like this:


Show unity. Don’t stand. Clap only for the things you must clap for, and do so tepidly. Make it clear you don’t agree with this racist, stupid, senile presidential pretender. Resist the very notion of his standing there and giving this speech as though he deserves to do so.

Trump surprised them and gave a speech for which they had not prepared, a speech they hadn’t expected: a unity speech, loaded with things they should actually have favored and applauded. Here’s one of the most blatant examples of what I mean, where we have the odd spectacle of a bunch of Republicans cheering a historic reduction in black unemployment and a bunch of Democrats sitting on their hands and refusing to be glad. Note some of them looking at each other for cues as to what they should do:

Worse still, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) took a back-handed swipe, complimenting Trump’s delivery, then saying, “whoever translated it for him from Russian did a good job.”

In his SOTU speech, Trump caught them flat-footed by emphasizing his Happy Warrior side. Every time the cameras panned on their unhappy faces, they looked sunk in gloom and bile.

They didn’t seem to be expecting this, although they should have. And they didn’t seem to be able to wing it and come up with a better reaction.

It’s a grave danger to underestimate your opponents. The Democrats have gotten used to underestimating Republicans, and it’s not a mystery why. Republicans have often played into their hands. Trump confounds them for many many reasons, but one of them is that he doesn’t play into their hands and yet they perceive that he does. They keep thinking that he has cooked his own goose (or that they are helping him to cook his own goose) and they seem surprised and puzzled every time the situation manages to boomerang back at them.

If you spend a lot of time hammering home the idea that your opponent is stupid, crazy, and/or senile, then every time he acts smart, sane, and competent it makes you look stupid, crazy, and/or like a lying propagandist. If your opponent gets to show himself to the American people and he’s not as you’ve described, who ends up looking foolish?

It’s highly likely that the Democrats’ base loved that the party hung tough against Trump and his populist celebration of America and its people. But the great middle—what did they think? I can’t help but believe that they felt even more estranged from the Democrats than in November of 2016, when that gulf was responsible for the stunning election of Trump the underdog.

A lot—a lot—can happen between now and November 2018. But I don’t see that the Congressional Democrats helped their own cause last night. They were unable to improvise a response that made more sense to most people. Clapping enthusiastically would have seemed like they were approving of Trump, and they didn’t want to do that. But looking grumpy made them seem like they were disapproving not just of Trump, but of America and the success of ordinary Americans.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]