Politics are to some degree a theatrical art, and successful pols are often the ones who are best at grand gestures. A perfect example is President Ronald Reagan standing in front of the Berlin Wall in 1987, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Reagan was a film actor. President Donald Trump, a reality TV star, plays to a much smaller screen. But he’s quite skilled at it — witness, for example, the clips of migrant “caravans” traveling toward the southern U.S. border, or the endless vignettes about crimes committed by people in the country illegally, or even the boundless supply of derogatory nicknames for the people who have crossed him in some way. You may not like what he does, but you notice and remember it.
The challenge for Trump’s critics and political opponents is not to get beat on the stage the president has chosen. Because we’re going to be stuck there for a while.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi punctuated the end of Trump’s State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress by ripping her copy of the speech in half. The move drew hosannas from the left, which saw the speech as self-congratulatory and provocative, designed to highlight the divisions in the chamber rather than to point a way forward. Pelosi’s response seems destined to live forever in the GIF universe, available to anyone looking to express scorn through multimedia.
But it also energized the right, which responded with a small gesture of its own. On Thursday, the House took up a Republican resolution disapproving of Pelosi’s action because the speech “contained the names and stories” of four Americans “who sacrificed so much for our country.” Ripping up those papers “was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session,” the resolution by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, asserts.
Talk about faux outrage. Since when is a photocopy of a speech a sacred document? Granted, if it were autographed, it might be worth something on eBay. But just because a speech includes the names of some of the people Trump called attention to that night — a courageous aid worker and three members of the armed forces who risked and in some cases lost their lives overseas — it’s still just a speech, and a political one at that. In the real world outside the Washington Beltway, where rhetoric counts for far less than action, the speech is barely worth the paper it’s printed on. And I would say that for just about any State of the Union delivered by just about any president.
Under House rules, however, Granger could force a vote on the resolution because it is considered “privileged.” That’s because it critiques the actions of a member in the chamber. It was tabled after the briefest of debates on a party-line vote — Democrats control the chamber, after all. But Republicans had the chance to go on record showing, yet again, that they will brook no criticism of their president, no matter how trivial.
Please bear in mind that this is the same party that complains about the time Democrats wasted investigating whether Trump sought to pry an improper favor from a foreign leader.
Who knows, maybe Granger’s swift move to denounce Pelosi’s paper rending will pay dividends in her district, or even motivate GOP voters nationwide. But honestly, I don’t think anyone will remember it after this week, just as no Democrat will head to the polls on Super Tuesday because Pelosi showed Trump who was the boss of the House chamber. Instead, they’ll be distracted by whatever new miniseries is playing on the small screen that Washington inhabits.
Jon Healey is the Los Angeles Times’ deputy editorial page editor.