If Donald Trump really wants to remake Washington, he might want to consider an outlandish idea that would upend the traditions surrounding the State of the Union Address. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already raised the possibility of cancelling or postponing the speech, currently slated for Jan. 29, because of the partial government shutdown. Why not take her up on the offer and get out of town?
Leave the swamp behind and give the speech from a state capitol out in that mass of America sometimes called flyover country.
Consider a few facts. Today, the United States is a deeply divided country where political discussions descend into bickering and where extreme views are on parade. One House Democrat started off the year with language not fit for a family newspaper while making a promise to impeach the president. Meanwhile, a Republican congressman from Iowa got himself into the national conversation by wondering when white nationalism became a derogatory term.
These aren't normal times. They are, in fact, reminiscent of the most divided periods in our history — periods when each side believed that the republic would come crashing down if they lost the next election or let slip the reins of power.
Some of this division stems from a belief — not altogether wrong — that Washington has lost touch with what the people of this country want and need from their national government. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (or maybe more accurately, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) represents the rise of a new set of ideas to nationalize large segments of the economy starting with health care and moving on to whatever environmental demands require. At the same time, much of that large swath of America that lacks a college degree looks at where the economy is headed and wonders what it will hold for those who don't have that degree to hang on the wall.
After all, we're a little more than a decade out from a financial crisis that eroded faith in stock markets and Wall Street and diminished the bedrock belief that buying a home was wise.
So how can the political class get a better view of what the electorate is thinking?
Elections are essential, of course. But elections aren't the only mechanism to feed information back to federal officials. Trump could take the entire State of the Union show out of the Capitol, invite every member of Congress and other dignitaries who typically attend to join him, and deliver the address from the heartland.
Doing so would be political theater, but it could also open up a substantive discussion. After all, imagine what would happen if he took the speech to, say, Lansing, Michigan. There would be a robust conversation about American manufacturing and a focus on Americans working to get by.
Other state capitals are bigger, but no matter which state he selects it would force open a conversation about what other regions of the country need and whether Washington is meeting its obligations.
Our one caution would be not to turn try to turn the speech into a rally, to steer clear of turning it into a partisan assault on political foes. He also needs to be mindful to meet the actual Constitutional require, so he might have to send a copy of his speech up to Capitol Hill. If so, he should do so. Check all the official boxes. The speech needs to reflect the dignity of the office of the presidency in tone as well as location.
And if the president takes the speech out of Washington, he would need to stud it with new ideas. Maybe he could sketch a rural agenda. Perhaps he'd point to criminal justice reform and recent legislation taking on the opioid crisis as examples of how the country can address pressing needs. He could offer a vision for the type of trade deal he is looking for and sketch out his thoughts on national security, but he would be best served if he stepped back and offered ideas aimed at bolstering the prospects of what is sometimes called "the forgotten man," the person left out when prosperity comes to some.
He would do well if he spent time acknowledging where we are as a country today, and he would likely need to talk about his role in feeding the fires of fury. But he would need to also offer a positive vision for the future. We know such a speech would be high stakes. And we wonder if he has such a speech in him. If he flubbed it, he'd give up his best shot at resetting the political debate and would likely never live down the decision. But then, if he offered the right vision that supported the ideas that have a real chance for improving people's lives, he might just get something done this year.