Nancy Pelosi's Big Shutdown Mistake | Opinion

Everyone is twittering over the way President Donald Trump cancelled a Democratic congressional junket led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while they were sitting on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.

It's seen, rightly, as partial payback for Pelosi's proposal Trump postpone his scheduled January 29 delivery of the State of the Union address until the shutdown can be resolved. The rules of the House are such that if she doesn't invite him, he can't come to the House chamber, where the speech has traditionally been given. In her mind she's denying him a forum to talk to the American people while at the same time lecturing Congress about the need for enhanced border security.

To Trump though, that really doesn't matter. The chance to play hardball with the Speaker is something his base will embrace and, if he and his closest communications advisers are smart, they'll recognize this for the opportunity it is.

The Constitution does require the president to periodically report to Congress on the "State of the Union." But it's only been since the time of Woodrow Wilson at the beginning of the progressive era that presidents have regularly gone to Capitol Hill to address Congress directly. In the age of the podcast, Twitter and Facebook Live, the idea of a speech delivered off a teleprompter from a rostrum inside the House chamber is an anachronism. As things are now, Trump can talk to them directly and send Congress his message by email.

One can imagine the most creative minds inside the West Wing are already at work trying to figure out a better venue, of which there are many. Pelosi has ceded control of the optics. The Democrats can't boo, can't refuse to rise when the GOP offers standing ovations, and they can't walk out en masse or even in small groups when he says something which strikes them as outrageous if they're not there.

Trump could give the speech from East Room in the White House, with members of the press and people for whom the illegal immigration crisis struck home in attendance. Imagine the impact if he were able to call out or even have people rise who were themselves victims of crimes committed by people who were in the United States after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. How hard would it be to find people who fit this profile who live in New York, which is represented in the U.S. Senate by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, or from Nancy Pelosi's piece of San Francisco or her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland where her father was for many years the mayor.

Nancy Pelosi House Speaker
U.S. House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

This kind of address would drive his point home powerfully, and in a way that resonates with the average American. Or he could go to the border and give it there in the presence not only of victims of crimes by illegal immigrants, but also members of the border patrol who are doing so much to try and stem the tide.

And if he really wanted to go "full Trump" he could tie the speech to one of his rallies that have proven so effective for him in the past, in a place like Daytona, Florida, just before its famous NASCAR race, or Houston, or San Diego, or Phoenix—someplace near enough to the border to matter but where the legions of Trump supporters can still get to.

By asking Trump to postpone the speech, which essentially gives him the opening to find another setting to deliver it, Pelosi has surrendered what little control she had over the event. Rather than keep him from speaking she's, as the saying goes, handed him the rope.

The national polls may show more people blaming Trump for the shutdown than the Democrats. That's probably true as he all but promised to own it if it happened. But in regular America, the places where Trump voters live and work and raise their children, the fact that life goes on while the government is shut down may reinforce their intuitive sense that too much of government doesn't do anything important.

What Trump has figured out, and Pelosi apparently hasn't, is the people most inconvenienced by it—in the short run at least—are members of the Democrats' electoral constituency. Most federal workers and most big cities—where the shutdown has the greatest impact—vote Democrat. By refusing to negotiate with Trump, Pelosi is hurting her base, the very people who did so much to help put her party back in power in the House.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics, culture, and the media for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and various other publications. He can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​