Trump, Pelosi, and the Decline of Institutional Roles
Updated: Sep 17
President Trump’s State of the Union address yesterday was highly partisan and triumphant, filled with more than the usual amount of stagecraft and “reality show” moments. But it was bookmarked by two unprecedented events that overshadowed the speech itself: Trump refusing to shake Speaker Pelosi’s hand, and Pelosi ripping the president's speech in half.
Perhaps both events were calculated, as some have speculated; perhaps they reflected the emotions of the moment. But I would argue that they also signified a recent and distressing trend in American politics: the erosion of respect our political leaders have for each other and for the constitutional roles they play.
Many people have spoken out about the numerous ways that Trump has broken norms of presidential behavior and acts “unpresidential.” Trump has particular contempt for other officers of American government, including the speakership. His failure to return Pelosi’s handshake follows months of insults against the Speaker on Twitter and a remarkably personal and bitter December letter to Pelosi accusing her of “violating your oaths [sic] of office.” Lest one is tempted to chalk this up to mere partisanship, or Trump’s lingering bitterness about impeachment, recall that Trump was willing to attack Speaker Paul Ryan when he perceived him as disloyal, such as on the issue of birthright citizenship.
These actions violate two norms that, according to Julia Azari, help constrain presidential overreach: respect for the independence of other political institutions, and recognition that partisan opposition is valid. It means nothing to Trump that the Speaker, regardless of her party, is a fellow constitutional officer, second in line to the presidency, and duly elected by the House of Representatives. (Not to mention, the Speaker invites the president to give the State of the Union speech in the first place. Talk about treating your host rudely.)
In the past, Pelosi has, at least rhetorically, voiced respect for the Trump’s constitutional office. She has repeatedly touted her reverence for the presidency, if not the president -- a subtle but important distinction. Nonetheless, her dramatic physical rejection of the president’s speech calls that reverence into question. (She also opted to introduce him without expressing her “high privilege and distinct honor,” as is customary.)
I also think that Pelosi’s move underscores a slow but steady change in how modern Speakers have viewed the Chief Executive. Since at least the mid-20th century, Speakers recognized that one of their central roles was to defend the institutional presidency regardless of party, especially in defense and foreign policy matters. In my 2010 book on the House speakership, I documented how Speakers of the House, starting with Sam Rayburn, sometimes exercised legislative leadership on behalf of the president, even if they were of the opposite party and their own partisans disapproved.
That institutional role of the speakership began declining after the Vietnam War, which sharply divided the country. In the 1980s, Speaker Tip O’Neill battled relentlessly against President Reagan’s effort to support the Nicaraguan Contras in their fight against the Sandinista government. The subsequent end of the Cold War removed an existential enemy that gave both parties reason to support the White House on issues of national security and foreign affairs.
Pelosi’s gesture went well beyond a foreign policy disagreement with the White House, of course. Even if it was in retaliation for Trump’s rudeness, or as a response to how he tried turning the State of the Union address into a campaign rally, it marked a sharp break from the norm of institutional deference that even highly partisan Speakers showed opposite-party presidents in public settings.
These developments (while hardly as bad as, say, the violence seen in the antebellum Congress) are nonetheless troubling. Simply put, our political system cannot function if its leaders do not appreciate the constitutional authority of their rivals. As Yuval Levin notes in his most recent book, the roles and duties of institutional actors – not just in political institutions, but other institutions too -- are vital to maintain a democratic civic society.
I don’t expect Trump and Pelosi to change, nor their sharp partisan differences to vanish overnight. But perhaps, after last night’s spectacle, we should consider cancelling the televised State of the Union address and go back to a written one. If bad behavior becomes the new norm, it is unlikely to give people much faith in their national government or those elected to lead it.