Congress’s Mean Girls Are Trump’s Offspring Omar and Ocasio-Cortez equate roughness with authenticity. So does the man they despise.

We’re in a time of absorbed but subtle and not fully noticed shifts. Old-time liberals and conservatives seem to understand each other more deeply, more generously than they did in the past: In some new way they see the other’s basic political decency. On the other hand the parties they’ve been aligned with offer constant confusion and surprise.

Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar
Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar

I am not talking about ideology but something else, some kind of judgment. I look at Beto O’Rourke and see a handsome, glistening creature who is obviously eccentric and probably shallow. He once wrote a short story about murdering children. Ben Terris of the Washington Post had a striking piece this week in which he reports Mr. O’Rourke ate dirt for its “regenerative powers” after losing to Ted Cruz, has pranked his wife with “Psycho”-style scenes in the shower, and once placed his child’s feces in a bowl and told his wife it was an avocado. (Neither would confirm the stories but Mr. O’Rourke told Mr. Terris it sounded like him.)

And yet he raised a hearty $6 million in the 24 hours after his announcement for the presidency, and draws adoring crowds.

As the grandfather said at the end of “Moonstruck,” “I’m confused.”

In comparison no one seems to be talking about Elizabeth Warren. What I see there, for all the Pocahontas and DNA gaffes, is earnestness and seriousness of purpose. She was a progressive before progressivism was cool. She is absorbed by policy. She is an undervalued stock.

A basic fact of this presidential cycle: When Donald Trump walked through the door, he burst off the jambs and made the opening bigger and more jagged, forever. Now almost anyone can walk through.

A second fact is that the Democratic Party been tugged dramatically to the left. But there is another dynamic this presidential campaign, and I will use Bernie Sanders to make the point.

I always thought that if he’d gotten his party’s nomination in 2016 he would have beaten Donald Trump. America was going left, he had been in Congress 25 years compared with Trump’s zero political experience, he was a new face and yet an old one, and not thought corrupt.

Mr. Sanders had something else, an unseen asset. In 2016 voters who wanted major change, who wanted greater economic equality or more-expansive programs, knew that if they hired Bernie Sanders he’d come in and push things in the direction they desired.

They also knew Republicans in Congress would push back. And because of that pushback nothing insane would happen. Things would tilt left but a Sanders administration would likely not be extreme because it would not be allowed to be.

Now that’s changed. Republicans lost the House and hold the Senate only closely, their power to push back is diminished. Voters know this. If a hard-line lefty were chosen as the nominee next year, extreme things would seem quite possible. Which will give a lot of voters pause.

The new lefties are a minority in the House but have become the face of the party, its brand. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is more famous than candidates for president. The left has the energy, the excitement, the media pull.

Readers know how I feel about the current political atmosphere. I decry the air of accusation on social media and in our broader political life, and the spirit of the struggle sessions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Last weekend there was the video of a pregnant Chelsea Clinton being accosted by an New York University student who screamed at her and waved her finger in her face. It reminded me of a struggle session, but the student herself, in her certitude, self-righteousness and chic, also reminded me of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her friends in Congress.

In less than three months in office they have established a new mood, an approach to national politics that is combative, angry, polarizing. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota surely meant to oppose U.S. policy toward Israel but somehow couldn’t quite manage to do it without being obviously anti-Semitic—“Israel has hypnotized the world,” “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” It caused an uproar, she apologized, but it seems never to have occurred to her that you can’t talk about your fellow Americans that way. Or that she is a public figure and has to actually model admirable behavior.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is quick—quicker—to aggression. Her default position, behind the smiles and hugs and warmth and dancing, is the pointed, accusatory finger. From just the past two weeks: The New Deal was “an extremely economically racist policy,” Ronald Reagan “pitted white working-class Americans against brown and black working Americans in order to just screw over all working-class Americans,” so he too was racist. Pretty much everyone on the political scene was racist until Ms. Ocasio-Cortez arrived.

I am not talking about mere comportment, and none of this is a misfortune of temperament. It is a strategy and it is working. Polarization yields prominence. They equate peacefulness with complacency. Politico’s Tim Alberta spoke with Ms. Omar this week. “I am certainly not looking to be comfortable, and I don’t want everyone necessarily to feel comfortable around me,” she said. “I think really the most exciting things happen when people are extremely uncomfortable.”

I’m sure she’ll do what she can to keep things exciting.

As for the imitators of the new style, they are making category errors. Courtesy, for instance, is not cowardice. It is not shrinking from real truths or their bracing expression. Courtesy is simply an act of public or private respect that comes from self-discipline, and self-discipline is not boring and antique, it’s a heroic little item that helps civilization to continue.

There is always a great temptation among the young in politics, and especially of the left, to see common respect as an admission of insincerity in opposing injustice. If you were sincere you’d be passionate—fierce and rude. They see courtesy as acceding to bourgeois political norms, when they are certain the bourgeoise established those norms so they’d never be called out and forced to admit their culpability.

They believe that to be enraged is to demonstrate seriousness. It is to show that you understand the urgency of the moment, even if others don’t. To behave in a way that shows respect for the humanity of others is to concede too much. After all, if they were truly human they’d be just as enraged as you are.

You must be crude to show the authenticity of your contempt for injustice. A gentle word is a useless word. But in reality you can’t have justice without mercy, it doesn’t work.

I think we all know where this started, the political brutishness, the ignoring of traditions and norms. Donald Trump is both origin and rationale.

The mean girls of Congress have learned at his knee. They have taken their tactics from him. They claim to be his reluctant imitators but I think they admire his ferocity. They have a taste for it, and a talent.

They are good at being the thing they supposedly despise. They are not the antidote to the current brutality but an iteration of it.

They are his natural children.

Kids, Don’t Become Success Robots Tennessee Tech is an amazing school, and nobody breaks the law to get admitted.

A few thoughts on the college admissions scandal in which wealthy and accomplished parents allegedly lied, cheated and bribed to get their kids admitted to elite universities.

I bet your reaction was like mine: An electric sense of “I didn’t know that was going on!” followed by an immediate “Of course that was going on!” Because there’s a lot of crazy money in dizzy hands, and there’s a lot of status involved in where your kids go to school.

It must be stressed that this is a scandal not of kids but of adults, fully functioning and wildly successful ones who knew what they were doing.

Success RobotsHere is something I think is part of the story. In the past decade or so I’ve observed a particular parenting style growing prevalent among the upper middle class and wealthy. It is intense. They love their kids and want the best for them, they want to be responsible, but there’s a degree to which one wonders if they don’t also see them as narcissistic extensions of themselves. They are hyper-attentive, providing meticulous academic grooming—private schools, private tutors and coaches, private classes in Chinese language and cello. They don’t want their children fat—that isn’t healthy, by which they mean attractive. They communicate the civilized opinions of the best people and signal it would be best to hew to them.

They aim their children at the best colleges, which are, to them, basically brands. The colleges too market themselves that way—“Well, we are Harvard.” Get in there and you’re branded too.

I believe a lot of parents do all this not only so their children will do well but so they will look good.

They are status monkeys creating success robots.

Which in one way is odd. Their family has already arrived! But there is something sick about America that no matter how much success you have it’s not enough, you must have more. And everyone must know you have it.

An apparently laudable goal becomes an extreme competition.

If their child succeeds they were successful parents. If they were successful parents their status is enhanced in a serious way: Everyone respects successful parents! There is no one who doesn’t! Magazine profiles of celebrities stress close families, happy children.

If Billy gets into Yale his parents won the race. If he does not, well, maybe they were average parents, or maybe not so good. Or maybe Billy isn’t that bright. (“Neither is his father,” the neighbors whisper.)

The kids pick up through cues the family ethos: The purpose of an education is to look good. When—this is old-fashioned, but let’s say it anyway—the purpose of an education is to enrich a mind, to help the young discover great thought, to teach history and science, to spur a sense of purpose and vocation.

An irony is that success robots, once wound up and pushed forward, often struggle. The president of an elite college told me recently the most surprising thing about recent classes is the number of students who ask for and need psychological services. They seem, said the president, unusually dependent on their parents.

A traditional reason for going away to college is to get away from your parents, to function and flourish on your own. But that’s hard when you’ve been so closely guided, so aimed toward achievement, even as its ultimate meaning was never quite explained to you.

I’ll tell you where I saw success robots. I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in—it was almost my first question, and it never abated—was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies.

In time I concluded they’d been trained to be shallow, encouraged to see others as commodities. They didn’t think great work would be rewarded, they thought great connections were. And it was what they’d implicitly been promised by the school: Get in here and you can network with the cream of the crop, you’ll rise to the top with them.

Here is a school that is an antidote to that. Three years ago I went to a smallish school that enrolls mostly students who are the first in their families to go to college. It was Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. A lot of the kids are local, a racial and ethnic mix, immigrants and children of immigrants. They were so mature—gracious, welcoming, quick with smart questions on presidents and policy. At a reception I complimented a young woman on her pretty cocktail dress. She smiled and said, “I got it from the clothes closet.” I shook my head. The Clothes Closet, she explained, is where students go to get something to wear to a job interview or an event like this one. People contribute what they’ve got, the students can always put something nice together. In time they contribute clothes too.

Cheryl Montgomery, the college’s director of development, laughed when I called her about it this week and told me that the closet, which had literally been a closet, is now in an office renovated to function as one. “We’ve got everything,” she said. “Men’s suits, women’s professional suits and dresses, ties, belts, shoes. We don’t want a student to worry, ‘Am I dressed appropriately?’” Interviews are hard enough. A lot of students don’t have anyone in their lives to help them. “Last Friday a gentleman who’s a quite spiffy dresser came to see me, a very successful businessman, and he donated four sport coats, a trove of men’s dress slacks and very nice button-down shirts, all in style.” When a cash donation comes in, it goes toward clothes for the unusually large and the unusually small.

I came away from Tennessee Tech thinking what I always think when I see such schools: We’re going to be OK.

And now, because you’d be lost without it, my advice to students still considering college in the year 2019. Avoid elite universities if you can; they’re too often indoctrination mills anyway. Aim at smaller, second-tier colleges, places of low-key harmony, religiously affiliated when possible—and get a real education. Every school has a library. Every library has books. That’s what you need.

You’ll be with a better class of people—harder-working, less cynical, more earnest. First-generation college students who are excited to be there and committed to study. Immigrants who feel grateful to be there. Home-schooled kids with self-possession and dignity, who see the dignity in others.

Do not network. Make friends. Learn about the lives of others.

Get Ready for the Struggle Session In America, and even more so on Twitter, there’s a whiff of China’s Cultural Revolution in the air.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution was a bitter thing, a catastrophe comparable in its societal effects, and similar in its historical feel, to the terrors of Stalin and the French Revolution. No one knows how many died; historians say up to two million. But what I find myself thinking of these days is the ritual humiliations, the “struggle sessions.”

In the mid-1960s Mao Zedong, suspicious of those around him, wary of the moves of erstwhile Soviet allies, damaged by a disastrous famine his policies had caused, surveyed the scene and decided it was time for a little mayhem. The problem wasn’t his disastrous ideology, it was, he wrote, “feudal forces full of hatred towards socialism . . . stirring up trouble, sabotaging socialist productive forces.” The party had been “infiltrated” by pragmatists and revisionists. He wrote—it is the epigraph of Frank Dikötter’s “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976”—“Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? That is the main question of the revolution.”

Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China, 1966.
Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China, 1966.

He would find and purge his foes, the usual suspects: intellectuals and other class enemies, capitalist roaders, those who clung to old religions or traditions. In “Mao’s Last Revolution,” Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals tell of a Ministry of Higher Education official brought up on charges of enjoying a “bourgeois lifestyle.” He’d been seen playing mah-jongg.

Mao unleashed university and high school students to weed out enemies and hold them to account. The students became the paramilitary Red Guards. They were instructed by the party to “clear away the evil habits of the old society” and extinguish what came to be known as “the four olds”—old ideas and customs, old habits and culture. “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons,” the state newspaper instructed them.

With a vengeance they did.

In the struggle sessions the accused, often teachers suspected of lacking proletarian feeling, were paraded through streets and campuses, sometimes stadiums. It was important always to have a jeering crowd; it was important that the electric feeling that comes with the possibility of murder be present. Dunce caps, sometimes wastebaskets, were placed on the victims’ heads, and placards stipulating their crimes hung from their necks. The victims were accused, berated, assaulted. Many falsely confessed in the vain hope of mercy.

Were any “guilty”? It hardly mattered. Fear and terror were the point. A destroyed society is more easily dominated.

The Chinese Catholic Margaret Chu, a medical-lab assistant, was dragged into the office of her labor camp in 1968 and made to answer invented charges. “Their real motive was once and again to force me to admit all my alleged crimes,” she wrote decades later. “ ‘I did not commit any crimes,’ I asserted.” She was accused again, roughed up. She denied her guilt again. “Immediately two people jumped on me and cut off half my hair.”

She was tortured, left in handcuffs for 100 days, and imprisoned for years. While being tortured she sometimes prayed for death so her suffering would stop.

The Cultural Revolution lasted roughly a dozen years and died with Mao in September 1976. In time a party congress denounced it as what it was: ruinous.

So I ask you to entertain an idea that has been on my mind. I don’t want to be overdramatic, but the spirit of the struggle session has returned and is here, in part because of the internet, in part because of the extremity of our politics, in part because more people are lonely. “Contention is better than loneliness,” as my people, the Irish, say, and they would know.

The air is full of accusation and humiliation. We have seen this spirit most famously on the campuses, where students protest harshly, sometimes violently, views they wish to suppress. Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.

The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter . On literary Twitter social-justice warriors get advance copies of new books and denounce them for deviationism—as insensitive, racist, appropriative, anti-LGBTQ. Books on the eve of publication have been pulled, sometimes withdrawn by authors who apologize profusely. Everyone’s scared. And the tormentors are not satisfied by an apology. They’re excited by it and prowl for more prey.

A few weeks ago a young woman on Twitter thought aloud: “What if public libraries were open late every night and we could engage in public life there instead of having to choose between drinking at the bar and domestic isolation.” This might get people off their screens and help them feel “included and nourished.”

A nice idea. Maybe some local official would pick it up. Instead there was a small onslaught of negative reaction. “Libraries are already significantly underfunded and they struggle to make do with what they’ve got.” “Before you suggest this understand that librarians are maxed out—our facilities are understaffed, we’re underpaid.” The idea would only work in “mainly affluent urban & suburban communities with already well-funded libraries whose wealth insulates them.” A woman soon to marry a librarian warned of “what this would do to the lives of the people who work there.”

After being batted about, the young woman apologized: “I made insensitive tweets abt public libraries & the individuals that staff them. I apologize for those tweets. I have much to learn abt the difficult challenges public librarians face, the services they provide, & how much they strive to meet the needs of communities they serve.”

She abased herself for having had a pretty idea. But that is dangerous when thought-cops are out there, eager to perceive insufficient class loyalty.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand understood the mood of things when she self-abased all over television after she announced for president. Once a Blue Dog Democrat, now a progressive, she nervously expressed remorse at her past deviationism. Her previous conservative stands, she said, were “callous.” “They certainly weren’t empathetic.” “I did not think about suffering in other people’s lives.” She was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of past stands. “I was not caring about others. . . . I was wrong.”

At least no one cut her hair. Maybe that will be in the 2024 cycle.

Joe Biden understands the moment. He quickly apologized last week after calling Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.” Progressive Cynthia Nixon denounced Mr. Pence as “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader and asked Mr. Biden to “consider how this falls on the ears of our community.” “You’re right, Cynthia,” he quickly responded.

All the Democratic candidates have apologized for something. Elizabeth Warren is abjectly sorry she took a DNA test.

Leaders of great liberal newspapers are in constant fear because so many of their readers—and writers—are more doctrinaire in their views, and angry. The struggle session is in the internal chatroom.

There’s a feeling in the air, isn’t there? We’re all noticing pieces of the story here and there, in this incident and that. But maybe it has an overall meaning. And maybe that meaning isn’t good.

I don’t know if we’re a crueler, more aggressive country than in the past. We’re certainly a louder one, and more anonymous in our cruelties.

And none of it portends good.

Am I wrong? If so, comment below. We can have a struggle session.

Michael Cohen Makes History There’s no precedent for such an attack on the essential nature of an American president.

Michael Cohen is, famously, a lowlife and screwball who’s made his living as an enforcer, liar and thug. He is going to prison essentially for these things. He has taken to implying his turning on Donald Trump is linked to an inner moral conversion, which may be true but is conveniently timed: He has nothing to lose and some form of leniency to gain.

But I found his testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee credible overall, and I suspect most everyone in America did, because no one, friend of the president or foe, love him or hate him, thinks Mr. Trump has a high personal character or an especially admirable back story. And that was Mr. Cohen’s subject.

Democrats say the purpose of the hearing was to get at the truth, Republicans say it was to disrupt the Trump presidency, and both are correct. But history, which is a real and actual thing, was also at the table, and this is what history was told by a man who was for 10 years the president’s personal lawyer and confidante, an intimate who was present at the creation:

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in Washington, D.C., Feb. 27.

Mr. Cohen implied the president’s Russian policies are not and never have been on the up-and-up: “Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump-Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign, and lied about it. He lied because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real-estate project.” Mr. Cohen said he came to see the president’s true character: “Since taking office he has become the worst version of himself. . . . Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead this nation—only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, the campaign is going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.’ He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign—for him—was always a marketing opportunity.”

None of these charges were new, precisely. They have been made in books, investigations and interviews both on and off the record. What is amazing though is that such a rebuke—such an attack on the essential nature of a president, and by an intimate—has no equal in our history. I don’t think, as we talk about Mr. Cohen’s testimony, we fully appreciate this. John Dean said there was a cancer growing in the presidency. He didn’t say Richard Nixon was the cancer. He didn’t say the president was wicked and a fraud.

This is bigger than we think, and history won’t miss the import of this testimony.

Were the hearings step one in an ultimate impeachment attempt? We’ll see. The 7½ hours came across like the artillery bombardment before the charge. Older Democrats will counsel that the way forward is to spend the next year weakening the president—2020 is coming, a move to impeach will cause grave national trouble. Will they prevail?

Everyone focuses on the always-upcoming Mueller report, but the action seems to be in Manhattan. When Mr. Cohen was asked if there were any illegal acts regarding Donald Trump that hadn’t come up in the hearings, he said yes. “Those are a part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York,” meaning the U.S. attorney there. What did the president or one of his agents communicate to Mr. Cohen the last time they had contact? “This topic is actually something that’s being investigated right now by the Southern District of New York.”

The Southern District of New York sure sounds busy. They’ve granted immunity to the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and they’re not limited by a specific mandate. They can look into any crime that took place within their jurisdiction. They took down the Mafia using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Performance by the new committee members was uneven. When the professionally fiery Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) made a speech implying that Republican member Mark Meadows was racist, Chairman Elijah Cummings defused the situation and Ms. Tlaib retreated, suggesting she was sorry she was misunderstood, by which she seemed to mean she was sorry she’d been comprehended. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, under criticism back home for her role in dooming the Amazon jobs deal, shrewdly played against type, eschewing a showy speech and instead asking carefully targeted questions.

Mr. Cohen didn’t always seem to be telling the whole truth. At least in one instance he appears to have misremembered or been untruthful. That is when he claimed he hadn’t wanted a job in the White House. Reporters who were there remember it differently. Dana Bash: “All of us, by people in and around the process, real time [were told] he very much wanted a job in the White House.”

Mr. Cohen insisted he had been offered a job, in White House counsel Don McGahn’s office, and rejected it. But that was the tell: Such jobs traditionally go to bright young people with impeccable credentials and good social skills. The president’s 50-year-old personal lawyer and fixer would have wanted a bigger role and title. If he felt dissed by such an offer it’s because he was.

I want to return to the subject of the president’s character. I texted this week with a great Trump supporter in Georgia, with whom I’d talked often during the 2016 campaign. “We do not care what Trump did before he became our president,” she said. “He has kept his promises to us.”

She was saying essentially that he has a high political character.

She does not trust those who’ve been around the president, calling them “liars, leakers and backstabbers.” I asked why he would have appointed bad men and women as aides. “He hired bad people in error,” she said. “They were bad actors, disloyal people. He was betrayed by them.”

She feels Mr. Trump has come through, from the courts to the economy. And when he got to Washington he didn’t go native—he still hates all the right people. She has also become protective of him. She sees him clobbered every day in every way throughout media. It has made him not only a sympathetic figure but an endearing one.

We close with Mr. Cummings, in his 23rd year in the House. He put a fair-minded face on the hearing. His closing remarks were powerful and humane, and seemed targeted not only at Mr. Cohen but perhaps at the newer members of Congress.

We are here to improve our democracy, he said.

To Mr. Cohen: “If I hear you correctly, it sounds like you’re crying out for a new normal—for us getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.”

Then, more broadly: “The one meeting I had with the president, I said, ‘The greatest gift we can give to our children is making sure we give them a democracy that is better than the one we came upon.’” He hoped all of us can get “the democracy we want,” and pass it on to our children, “so they can do better than we did.”

Welcome to New York, Amazon—Now Go Home Progressives put out the unwelcome mat, and city dwellers will pay the price for years to come.

A last word on Amazon and New York City. The story’s over but it doesn’t stop hurting. Twenty-five thousand jobs lost, maybe 40,000 when all is said and done, and of all kinds—high-tech, management, white-collar, blue. All the construction, and the signs and symbols of a coming affluence: the streets lit bright, the sidewalks busy, shops and restaurants humming, hiring. The feeling of safety you have when you pass doorways on the street at night and can hear laughter and conversation on the other side.

Welcome to New York, Amazon—Now Go HomeThis is not just “a loss,” it is a whole lost world. And it is a watershed event for my town. After Amazon’s withdrawal no major American company will open a new headquarters here for at least a generation. No CEO is going to do what Jeff Bezos did, invest all that time and money, do all the planning, negotiating and deciding, only to see it collapse in bitter headlines because the politicians you’re making the deal with can’t control their own troops, and because in the end it is summoning a humiliation to do big business in a town whose political life is dominated by a wild and rising progressive left.

Their issues were tax breaks and unionization.

Should corporations, especially big, megarich ones, be given tax benefits for locating in a city or state? No, actually. They should come in simply as grateful and eager new citizens, especially in a place like New York, since there’s nothing like us. But that is not the world in which we live. In this world politicians are desperate to expand the tax base and brag about creating jobs. Companies can and do press every advantage. New York City and state offered Amazon almost $3 billion in future tax breaks. (Newark and New Jersey offered $7 billion; everyone’s desperate.) New York state said that over the next 25 years Amazon’s presence would yield $186 billion in positive economic impact, including $14 billion in additional tax payments. The progressives who dominate New York’s City Council charged those numbers came from consultants hired to support the deal. Fine, assume they doubled the actual benefits: That would mean $93 billion in positive economic impact, $7 billion in tax payments. Still a huge benefit to the people of New York, and a lifeline for a state experiencing, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, more than $2 billion in tax shortfalls because the rich keep moving out.

Jeff Bezos was the rich guy who wanted to move in.

Amazon was knocked because it wouldn’t promise to unionize. I favor private unions: A certain claimed equality, a certain balance between a huge company’s management and the working man or woman, is not the worst thing in the world. And people more than ever need to belong to something. If Amazon were unionized it would cost them, and, warm little humanitarians that they are, they would immediately pass the cost on to consumers. That cost increase might function as a little boost to neighborhood retailers. And we all want neighborhood stores to get a boost because they’re our neighbors. They talk to us; they are part of the community; they make life more human. But you can’t expect Amazon, which is a business, to walk in declaring: We’ll not only help you unionize, we’ll organize your first strike!

When Amazon withdrew, Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his embarrassment and fear, decided he’d bluff his way through with tough talk. Amazon ran because they couldn’t take the heat. “You have to be tough to make it in New York City.”

Oh you he-man, you stud. Those bland little Amazon drones are real softies. They work for the richest man in the world and their job is to make him richer and if they don’t, they’re fired. Half Mr. Bezos’ business plan involves selling things for a dime less. They’d strangle you for a nickel.

Here is the truth: New York’s progressives weren’t tough, they were weak. They don’t know how to play this game.

You want to be tough and mean, get what you want, and keep those jobs for your constituents? Here was the play:

You don’t unleash the furies and hold hearings where crowds jeer, hiss and chant “GTFO, Amazon has got to go.” You don’t put stickers on every lamp pole saying “Amazon crime.” You don’t insult and belittle their representatives. You don’t become Tweeting Trotsky.

You quietly vote yes, go to the groundbreaking, and welcome our new partner in prosperity. Then you wait. And as soon as the new headquarters is fully built and staffed, you shake them down like a boss.

You move on local issues—high rents, crowded subways. To help on unionization you get the next Democrat in the White House to sic the National Labor Relations Board. You go to your friends in the big New York papers and say, “Amazon’s cruel, the shifts are so long the elevator operators are peeing in bottles, Bezos dropped his wallet and when the receptionist picked it up it broke her back.”

And Mr. Bezos, whose life is changing, who by now is a prince of the city with the fanciest friends—he can’t stand being killed every day! Also it’s 2021 and he’s worth $250 billion, and he says, “What the hell, give them half of what they want.”

What’s he going to do, leave? The place has been built, billions have been spent.

That’s real left-wing hardball: You catch it, then you skin it.

They let their prey go. What second-rate slobs run this town.

Opponents came out early, hard and full of rage. Jimmy Van Bramer, the preening councilman whose district included Amazon’s site: “The mayor and the governor caved to the richest man on Earth and then handed the bill to each and every New Yorker.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t wait a week after her election. Politico, Nov. 13: “She ripped the reported tax breaks the company will receive and described the local community’s reaction to the news as ‘outrage.’” Actually the community was for it; ideologues were against it. Amazon is rich, she said in a tweet: “The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning for residents here.” Sometimes she seemed to think New York was literally handing Mr. Bezos a $3 billion check. Sometimes she seemed to know that wasn’t true but found it helpful to mislead. Like Mr. de Blasio she scrambled in apparent shock when Amazon backed out, and chose a triumphalist dodge. “Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed.” No, everyday New Yorkers did not do it. They wanted the jobs. It was you, Fredo.

It would all be funny if it weren’t for that lost world. The 25,000 families getting a new paycheck, the mothers and fathers suddenly able to send their kids to the local Catholic school, the busy sidewalks, the lights. Instead, the books unbought in the store that didn’t open. The talent unhired and unmet.

Think of it that way and it breaks your heart. Really: breaks it.

Republicans Need to Save Capitalism Democrats have gone left, so they’re not going to do it. The GOP needs a renewed seriousness.

Let’s think about the broader, less immediate meaning of our political era.

This is how I read it and have read it for some time:

The Democratic Party is going hard left. There will be stops and starts but it’s the general trajectory and will be for the foreseeable future. Pew Research sees the party lurching to the left since 2009; Gallup says the percentage of Democrats calling themselves liberal has jumped 23 points since 2000. But you don’t need polls. More than 70 Democrats in the House, and a dozen in the Senate, have signed on to the Green New Deal, an extreme-to-the-point-of-absurdist plan that is yet serious: Its authors have staked out what they want in terms of environmental and economic policy, will try to win half or a quarter of it, and on victory will declare themselves to have been moderate all along. The next day they will continue to push for everything. The party’s presidential hopefuls propose to do away with private medical insurance and abolish ICE. Three years ago Hillary Clinton would have called this extreme; today it is her party’s emerging consensus.

Presidents Herbert C. Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt
Presidents Herbert C. Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt

The academy and our mass entertainment culture are entities of the left and will continue to push in that direction. Millennials, the biggest voting-age bloc in America, are to the left of the generations before them. Moderates are aging out. The progressives are young and will give their lives to politics: It’s all they’ve ever known. It is a mistake to dismiss their leaders as goofballs who’ll soon fall off the stage. They may or may not, but those who support and surround them are serious ideologues who mean to own the future.

None of this feels like a passing phase. It feels like the outline of a great political struggle that will be fought over the next 10 years or more.

Two thoughts, in the broadest possible strokes, on how we got here:

The American establishment had to come to look very, very bad. Two long unwon wars destroyed the GOP’s reputation for sobriety in foreign affairs, and the 2008 crash cratered its reputation for economic probity. Both disasters gave those inclined to turn from the status quo inspiration and arguments. Culturally, 2008 was especially resonant: The government bailed out its buddies and threw no one in jail, and the capitalists failed to defend the system that made them rich. They dummied up, hunkered down and waited for it to pass.

Americans have long sort of accepted a kind of deal regarding leadership by various elites and establishments. The agreement was that if the elites more or less play by the rules, protect the integrity of the system, and care about the people, they can have their mansions. But when you begin to perceive that the great and mighty are not necessarily on your side, when they show no particular sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens, all bets are off. The compact is broken: They no longer get to have their mansions. They no longer get to be “the rich.”

For most of the 20th century the poor in America didn’t hate the rich for their mansions; they wanted a mansion and thought they could get one if things turned their way. When you think the system’s rigged, your attitude changes.

On the right the same wars, the same crash, and a different aspect. In the great issue of the 2016 campaign it became unmistakably clear that the GOP elite did not care in the least how the working class experienced immigration. The party already worried too much about border security—that’s the lesson the elites took from Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, according to their famous autopsy. They appeared to look after their own needs, their own reputations: We’re not racist like people who worry about the border! They were, as I’ve written, the protected, who looked down on those with rougher lives. The unprotected noticed, and began to sunder their relationship with establishments and elites.

Donald Trump came of that sundering. He was the perfect insult thrown in the establishment’s face. You’re such losers we’re hiring a reality-TV star to take your place. He’ll be better than you.

Conservatives regularly attend symposia to discuss the future of conservatism. Republicans in Washington stumble around trying to figure what to stand for beyond capitalizing on whatever zany thing some socialist said today.

But isn’t their historical purpose clear? Their job—now and in the coming decade—is, in a supple, clever and concerted way, to save the free-market system from those who would dismantle it. It is to preserve and defend the capitalism that made America a great thing in the world and that, for all its flaws and inequities, created and spread stupendous wealth. The natural job of conservatives is to conserve, in this case that great system.

I’ll go whole hog here. We need a cleaned-up capitalism, not a weary, sighing, acceptance-of-man’s-fallen-nature capitalism. Republicans and conservatives need a more capacious sense of what is needed in America now, including what their own voters need. The party needs a tax-and-spending reality that takes into account an understandable and prevalent mood of great need. They need to be moderate, peaceable and tactful on social issues, but firm, too. This is where the left really is insane: As the earnest, dimwitted governor of Virginia thoughtfully pointed out, they do allow the full-term baby to be born, then make it comfortable as they debate whether it should be allowed to take its first breath or quietly expire on the table. A party that can’t stand up against that doesn’t deserve to exist.

All this must be done with a sense of how Americans on the ground are seeing things. What they see all around them cultural catastrophe—drugs, the decline of faith, the splintering of all norms by which they’d lived, schools that don’t teach and that leave their kids with a generalized anxiety. They want more help to deal with this. If you said, “We’re going to have a national program to help our boys become good men,” they would be for it, they would cheer. If you said, “We’re going to get serious and apply brains and money to what we all know is a mental-health crisis in America,” they wouldn’t care about the cost—and they’d be right not to care. They think as a people we’ve changed, our character has changed, and this dims our future. Make things better on the ground now and we’ll figure out the rest later.

These are not quaint nostalgists pining for the past, they are realists looking at ruin. They know some future crisis will test whether we can hold together as a nation. Whatever holds us together now must be undergirded, expanded.

Much will depend on how the Republican Party handles this epic era, because the Democrats are not only going left, they will do it badly. They will lurch, they will be spurred by anger and abstractions, they will be destructive. They really would kill the goose that laid the golden egg, because they feel no loyalty to it.

Republicans, save that goose. Change yourselves and save capitalism.

You are thinking, “My goodness, that’s what FDR said he was doing!”

Yes.

Can Trump Handle a Foreign Crisis? He’ll face one eventually, and there’s good reason to worry the administration will be unprepared.

Someday this White House will face a sudden, immediate and severe foreign-policy crisis. It’s almost a miracle it hasn’t happened already. George W. Bush had 9/11 less than eight months into his tenure; John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs three months into his presidency and the Cuban missile crisis the following year. In two years Donald Trump has faced some turbulence, but not a full-fledged crisis.

Such good fortune won’t continue forever. I sometimes ask past and present officials of this administration their thoughts on a crisis, and how the White House would handle one. They are concerned.

President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy inspecting missiles at Fort Stewart

What might such a crisis look like? History resides in both the unexpected and the long-predicted. Russia moves against a U.S. ally, testing Washington’s commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty; a coordinated cyber action by our adversaries takes down the American grid; China, experiencing political unrest within a background of a slowing economy, decides this is a good time to move on Taiwan; someone bombs Iran’s missile sites; Venezuela explodes in violence during a military crackdown; there’s an accidental launch somewhere.

Maybe it will be a wild and deliberate act that brings trouble, maybe not. The historian Margaret MacMillan said a few years ago in a radio interview: “I think we should never underestimate the sheer role of accident.”

What does it take to handle a grave crisis successfully, beyond luck?

Everything depends on personnel, process and planning. The president and his top advisers have to work closely, with trust and confidence, quickly apprehending the shape of the challenge and its implications. There must be people around him with wisdom, judgment, experience. They must know their jobs and be able to execute them under pressure. Clear lines of communication are key between both individuals and agencies. The president and his advisers have to maintain high focus yet pace themselves—you never know how long a crisis will last. They would have to keep their eyes on the million moving pieces, military and diplomatic, that comprise a strategy. As Navy veteran JFK said during the missile crisis, “There’s always some poor son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

How would this White House handle a grave crisis? It is right to feel particular concern. We know from every first-person account, from the histories, memoirs and journalism, that it’s a White House frequently at war. They don’t get along, they leak, they don’t trust each other. There is unusually high turnover, a constantly changing cast of characters, a lack of deep experience. During the Berlin airlift, thought at the time to be the height of the Cold War, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who’d been Army chief of staff during World War II, was asked how worried he was. “I’ve seen worse,” he replied. He had. No one around this president has seen worse. When Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster left the administration, a cumulative 123 years of military and diplomatic experience left with them.

The president is famously impulsive, uninterested in deep study, not systematic in his thinking. His recently leaked schedules give no sign he spends a lot of time forging deeper relationships with advisers and agency heads on whom one day a great deal may depend. There is a marked lack of trust between the intelligence community and the White House—and intelligence is front and center during a crisis. The National Security Council is not fully staffed.

What would happen if they suddenly faced heavy history? “No administration is ready for its first crisis,” says Richard Haass, who was a member of George H.W. Bush’s NSC and is author of “A World in Disarray.” “What you learn is that the machinery isn’t adequate, or people aren’t ready.” First crises trigger reforms of procedures so that second ones are better handled. “This administration is not populated by people who’ve been through a crisis of the first order.” Mr. Haass notes that the national security adviser must see himself not only as counselor to the president but a coordinator of the interagency process. He’s got to make sure it works.

There is no way, really, to simulate a crisis, because you don’t know what’s coming, and key people are busy doing their regular jobs. And all administrations, up until the point they’re tested, tend to be overconfident.

What can they do to be readier? Think, study, talk and plan.

For a modern example of good process, personnel and management, there is the Cuban missile crisis. Because of its nature—two nuclear powers poised eye to eye—the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The threat of miscalculation was ever present in JFK’s mind. He feared a so-called spasm response—a knee-jerk reaction from Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev if he felt cornered or provoked. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says “a big part of Kennedy’s job was to keep an eye on every aspect, big and small—where planes are flying, where troops are moving”—so that Krushchev “could get no false impression.” Kennedy had learned during the Bay of Pigs disaster that a president can’t do it alone. He created an executive committee of a dozen trusted advisers to help him achieve consensus and devise strategy. “He needed expert help to ride herd on the bureaucracy, including the military bureaucracy.” He often absented himself so members weren’t tempted to tailor their advice to his perceived preferences. In time he brought in Congress. House Majority Whip Hale Boggs was famously summoned by a note in a bottle dropped from an military helicopter as he fished on the Gulf of Mexico. Personal emissaries were sent to Paris, Bonn and London. When former Secretary of State Dean Acheson met with Charles de Gaulle, the latter famously waved away photographic proof of the Soviet missile sites. A great nation like America would not act without proof, he said.

“It was,” says Mr. Beschloss, “a triumph of management.”

He notes that President Trump doesn’t seem to think homing in on details is a big part of his job: “For one who touts himself as a spectacular manager, he hasn’t gotten beyond the idea ‘I alone can fix it.’”

It would be good to know people in the administration are regularly thinking about all this.

They need to repair the breach with the intelligence community. They need to see to it that a serious NSC process is produced, and all positions filled, preferably with experienced professionals for whom the next crisis is not their first one.

It might be good to have regular situation-room meetings on what-ifs, and how to handle what-ifs, and to have deep contingency planning with intelligence, military and civilian leaders discussing scenarios. “Put yourself in a position,” says Mr. Haass, “where you’re less unread when a crisis does occur.”

All the senior people in an administration always know whether and how they’ll get to the bunker. But by the time we’re talking bunkers, the story is almost over. It’s not a plan. Think about the plan.

Margaret MacMillan again: People not only get used to peace and think it’s “the normal state of affairs,” they get used to the idea that any crisis can be weathered, because they have been in the past. But that’s no guarantee of anything, is it?

Mr. President, Tear Down That Word Trump needs a way out of the shutdown. Meanwhile, Howard Schultz misjudges the country’s direction.

NPR voice: This week in Advice for People Who Didn’t Ask, we focus on two men of significant ambition who are making perplexing decisions.

President Trump just took a drubbing on immigration, undone by the deadly competence of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is now generally regarded as the answer to the question: “What if a Prada bag with a gun in it became a person?” That is from former Obama speechwriter and leftist provocateur Jon Lovett, and it’s a good line because it is true.

Republicans on the Hill are negotiating for a new deal, but their team just lost and Democrats are heady. (There is always, however, the deadly competence of Mitch McConnell.)

President Trump and Howard Schultz
President Donald J. Trump and former Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz.

If no deal is struck, the president can risk another shutdown or attempt to secure wall funding by declaring a national emergency. The more-serious Republicans do not want that historic precedent set, and in any case it would get bogged down in the courts.
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Join us on March 4 as WSJ Opinion’s Paul Gigot leads a “State of TV News” panel discussion including Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo, CBS’s Christy Tanner and “Network” actor Tony Goldwyn. Included in your admission to the event is a ticket to see “Network” on Broadway at a subsequent date.

What should the president do? Survey the field after battle and notice that some of the landscape has changed. For a solid month Americans again focused on illegal immigration. In a country that’s never thinking about only one thing, that was a bit of a feat. Also, Mr. Trump in his statements and meetings with the press came across, for perhaps the first time, as sincere and informed. Previously he’d looked like a guy who’d intuited a powerful issue and turned it into a line.

Congressional Democrats did not seem sincere, and a lot of them found it necessary to say they very much want the border secure. They made a point of speaking of their fidelity to the idea. They were telling the people back home: I acknowledge there’s a problem and want to help.

At their best, Democrats oppose the wall as a matter of political aesthetics. A big, fat, glowering slab of concrete on the edges of America is . . . brutalist, unlovely, aggressive. That’s not who we are!

The word “wall” has become as symbolic to them as it is to the president. When they add, “But I’m not for the wall,” they are telling their immigrant constituents, “I don’t fear you, I’m for you.”

The Democrats must defeat the president on that one word.

The president should let them, while pretending it pains him.

The vast majority of the American people want order and the rule of law returned to the border. How it is done is up to the experts. They just want it done. The word “wall” has been symbolic to many of them too—it means taking the issue seriously.

But the president himself has given up on the idea of a wall specifically. He spoke often during the shutdown of barriers, structures, smart tech, dedicated personnel. He knows one big wall won’t cut it. He’s taken to talking about tunnels. Walls don’t stop tunnels.

But he can’t admit he’s backed off on the wall, and he loves his showbiz, so now and then he says, “Wall, wall,” and whoever’s around him will say, “Yeah, wall.” He should stop.

Mr. President, tear down that word.

While Republicans on the Hill are negotiating, he should go to the country in a new way, making an earnest case about the benefits of ordered legal immigration and the threat of illegal chaos. He should go not to his usual big rallies but to the old Republicans, the people who voted for Bushes and Romneys—an audience that doesn’t love him no matter what. He needs not the solid one-third who support him but the not-solid third who might go this way or that. And they should be seated, not standing there waiting to cheer. He should be so brave he doesn’t have to be exciting.

He should push and push and then accept a solid deal that doesn’t mention a wall but includes everything else. Then he should act defeated. He should run around looking slump-shouldered and lost in his big blue overcoat. It won’t be hard!

He should ask the media please, in the coming year and now that a deal has been passed, to cover the border, talk to people who work there, find out if what we’ve done has controlled illegal immigration.

Within a year the answer should be apparent. If the border is secure Mr. Trump will look good: He’s the first president in a quarter-century to get the job done. It was five-dimensional chess after all! If it doesn’t work he’s got a big fat 2020 issue: “I bowed to reality, I made a deal, and look what they did.”

Now to the second man of significant ambition—Howard Schultz, who may run for president. What a great story he has. A city kid from New York, from the real working class and with the truest, most reliable working-class trope: family pain. Nobody gave him his first million. He builds a company, spreads his product through the country and the world, creating 238,000 jobs as of 2017. And jobs build families. This is a public good.

But he’s a neophyte who’s not a natural, a novice without magnetism. I don’t see his constituency. And his theory of the case is wrong. He’s fiscally to the right and on social issues to the left. There’s some market for that, but is it really where America is going?

No, it is not.

America is headed left economically. Two thousand eight changed everything, deeply undermining faith in free-market capitalism. One of the great sins of that time—and all the years after—was that the capitalists themselves, in their vast carelessness, couldn’t even rouse themselves to defend the reputation of the system that made them rich and their country great. In any case, the most significant sound in 2016 was Trump audiences cheering his vows not to cut entitlements. They would have cheered if he’d promised increases, too.

As for what are called the social issues, moderation is the future, maybe even a new conservatism, not leftism. The left has demanded too much the past few years, been maximalist in its approach, got in America’s face and space. Its social activism is a daily harassment in ways that don’t show up in the polls. The new abortion regime in the states, bake my cake, the farther edges of #MeToo, demands for changes to our very language. Liberation becomes propaganda and filters up through the media and down to the schools. America once had a lot of “live and let live” in it. Not anymore, and its giving way is causing barely articulable grief, and more broadly than the left imagines.

Wise Democrats are developing reservations. Young conservatives are perhaps about to come alive.

I think Mr. Schultz has it backward.

But his immediate problem is the Democratic Party, which has grown newly strategic and is about to pummel him. Democrats will never forget—and it is understandable that they will never forget—what Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000 did to Al Gore. Mr. Nader’s 97,488 votes in Florida kept Mr. Gore from becoming president, and elected George W. Bush. They feel they are this close to taking out Mr. Trump. They are not going to let another independent get in their way.

Mr. Schultz had better know what’s coming. As the Twitter meme goes, would they kill baby Nader? They would.

The State of the Union Is Missing America loses something worthwhile as Trump and Pelosi cast aside another traditional norm.

Donald Trump’s signature, which he enjoys displaying after signing bills and executive orders, is unusually big, sharp and jagged. It’s like the lines a seismograph makes during an earthquake, or what a polygraph shows when you’re telling a whopper. Lately it’s looking bigger and sharper.

He’s in a crisis he summoned. His numbers are down. He’s dug himself in a hole. His foes, delighted at his struggle, refuse to help him get out—even as they claim concern that employees are going without pay and air-traffic controllers are calling in sick, even when the longer the shutdown, the likelier something really bad will happen.

The State of the Union address has been sacrificed. It is fair that the president not give the address—and that the House speaker not leave Washington, even to visit troops—during a shutdown in which others, not they, suffer. But it would have been much better if both sides had met and issued a statement: “We acknowledge that a shutdown is always the result of failure, and while it continues the president and the Congress will forgo benefits of office. We will continue to talk and attempt to end the impasse. As soon as we do, this important address will take place.”

President Harry S Truman
President Harry S Truman delivers a State of the Union address

They can’t say that because they’re not talking. Which is amazing in itself, and a scandal.

Nancy Pelosi’s original excuse for disinviting Mr. Trump, security concerns, was lame and disingenuous, and being obviously those things it was also aggressive.

And all because she didn’t want to sit behind him and stare at his hair. She didn’t want to sit through an hour of listening to him while looking at the back of his head, which is what speakers do. If the speech had taken place as usual, Mr. Trump, being Mr. Trump, likely would have used the moment to put her on the spot—making some plea for agreement, having his Republicans jump to their feet in applause, turning around, pausing, daring her not to nod to his good-faith idea.

That would have been rude. He is rude. And now he has been punished. No speech! I’m not sure we fully appreciate that for a speaker of the House to tell a president of the United States that he is not welcome to make a State of the Union address is a shocking violation of norms. And it will lead to nothing good. A new precedent will have been set: You can disinvite a president if you hate him. And the future won’t be short of hate.

I’m hearing a lot of “good riddance” about the speech, but that’s shortsighted and historically ignorant. Yes, the event has devolved into kabuki in which stupid applause lines prompt rote cheering. Yes, it’s too often a laundry list. The language has become phony as it attempts to be elevated: “Let us follow those better angels.” My urging to speech-givers has been to hold the let-us. Plain, straight and honest is the way to go, and if you have a little wit that won’t hurt either.

What’s being overlooked is that the speech has a high policy purpose. It’s not a celebration of the imperial presidency. In fact, it puts the president on the spot. The Founders were not stupid and knew what they were doing when, in the Constitution, they instructed the chief executive to report to Congress on the condition the country is in.

The speech is a public acknowledgment that America is both a democracy and a republic. Somehow we’re never reminded. But that’s the chief executive going down the street to Congress’s house, asking to enter, and trying his best to persuade that coequal branch as the judiciary looks on.

The fact of the speech forces a White House to concentrate on what it thinks. Suddenly it must determine and put into words its priorities for the coming year. Suddenly it has a deadline. Suddenly it has to take its own sentiments seriously. The speech forces the president to decide, to focus, and not to take shelter in the day-to-day and whatever crisis just came over the transom.

The president is forced to take stock. He must state with at least some measure of credibility that “the State of the Union is . . .” Is what?

Harry Truman in 1949 was plain, unadorned: The state of the union is “good.” Gerald Ford in 1975 was blunt to the point of downcast: “The State of the Union is not good”—too many people out of work, inflation too high. Ronald Reagan in 1985 congratulated the American people for producing “a nation renewed, stronger, freer, and more secure than before.” George H.W. Bush in 1992 didn’t characterize the historical era but an event: “I am not sure we’ve absorbed the full impact, the full import of what happened. But communism died this year. . . . By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” Woodrow Wilson in December 1913: “The country, I am thankful to say, is at peace with all the world.” For Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1945, the subject was the war: “Everything we are and have is at stake. Everything we are, and have, will be given.”

It matters what they say! Not only to the moment but to history.

As to its other purposes, the speech is a moment of enacted majesty. Not real majesty—real majesty would be Jackie Kennedy walking behind the caisson and behind her a street full of kings. But it’s a night when our democracy struts its stuff. The president, Congress, the Supreme Court, the cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the military, the press in the gallery, all arrayed. The heroes in the balcony, reminding us not of our politics but of our humanity, of the fact that almost against the odds America keeps producing spectacular individuals. All are there acting out comity, dignity, stature. I don’t really care if they feel these things. No one cares. We just want them to show it because children are watching, or at least taking a look as they pass a screen, and learning how adults in public act.

My friend Jeremy Shane, who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, speaks of the thrill of the door’s opening. “It was hard not to get goose bumps when the sergeant-at-arms bangs on the floor and announces, ‘Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!’ ” And modest Landon Parvin, one of the great speechwriters of our era, remembers watching the speech as a child. “When I was growing up, State of the Unions were special occasions, like the queen opening Parliament and giving her speech. They were, in effect, occasions of state.”

All this has value. A fracturing nation cannot afford to so blithely cast aside another of its traditions.

Everyone involved should have shown forbearance and courtesy, a greater seriousness about a worthy tradition as it was delayed but not canceled, knowing you maintain form because you know democracies are in some part held together by it.

The speaker has shamed herself by not negotiating to end the problem that caused the postponement.

The president wouldn’t take a deal; now they won’t make a deal. We live through the chaos that is, always, his signature move.

The Odd Way We Announce for President Now The challenge, pressure and opportunity of being a female candidate in 2020.

We are American politicians. We are running for president. We are dancing and drinking beer. We are on a road trip, dilating on our mind-loops, hoping to make new friends. We are singing “One Nation Under a Groove.” We are announcing we’re exploring a run on Colbert as we giggle and hold his hand, as if we were announcing stardom in a new sitcom. And maybe we are. We have absorbed the lesson of the Trump era: You can do anything. And before this is over, you will. Beto O’Rourke live-streamed a dental visit as he queried his hygienist about life in her border town. His teeth are large, white and gleaming. This is not a kid who was ever told there’s no milk in the house. He is a candidate of hope. My hope is he’s too young to need regular colonoscopies.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris

Why do they do this? Because they know a candidate now is a mood. Not a thought, a stand or a statement, but a mood.

They do this because they want to seem unpretentious, relatable. “I’m just like you.”

But here is our secret: We would like someone better than us.

As they demystify themselves they further demystify the office they seek. If they win it they will have made their life harder by lowering their own stature. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Americans who’ve experienced some history, and have a sense of the trouble America is in, are jarred by this casual puerility.

How I wish they’d stop. I wish the next candidate to announce would be like . . . Margaret Chase Smith. Or Adlai Stevenson. Modest, adult, not exhibitionistic. He or she would make a sober, serious speech about the problems of our time. There would be no faint, unconscious air of “I know you’re stupid and shallow and I will now make believe I am your friend.”

But that is not my subject, which is the women running for president. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Kirsten Gillibrand have made it clear they’re in, and more will likely come.

Do they face double or different standards because they are women? Will they be subject to special and unique pressures?

Yes they do, and yes they will.

It is harder to be a public woman in America than a public man, and harder to be a female candidate. The challenges they face are practical, emotional, even existential. Practical: No one gets a lot of sleep on the trail, but a woman has to get up an hour earlier for makeup, hair, to choose what to wear and get it together. If she doesn’t, they’ll say she looks bad. Emotional: We are a crueler country every year, thanks in part to the internet, where women are the objects not of more hate but of sicker hate—brute, sexual, anonymous. Existential: people often experience what a woman says and what a man says differently. They just do.

Female candidates are also battered by professional consultants who claim to understand voters, and who tell them to be strong but approachable, warm but steely, mom but dad, young and bouncy but wise and grave. These operatives are the swarming locusts of politics, eating all in their path. They never say, “Let’s just settle down and be mature, as the moment seems to demand it.” Male candidates face this too, but for women it is more so—more nervous and defensive.

What do you do about such challenges? You don’t claim victimhood. You don’t demand special treatment. You overcome them.

There are some new dynamics this year. For 30 years Hillary Clinton sucked up all the oxygen. She was The Woman, the next in line, and in the end she was The Official Victim of Sexism, or so she said. But this year there are a lot of women running, with different backgrounds, histories and styles. They don’t have her baggage.

Democratic women are now out from under not a male shadow or a cultural shadow but Hillary’s shadow. The double standard of old may be less relevant this cycle. In fact, reporters may be too timid, holding back their punches in fear of Twitter mobs.

Hillary put the issue of “likability” and “relatability” forward as a subject of national debate. But likability is not a sexist slight. “It’s a standard for all candidates, like ‘charisma’ or ‘gravitas,’ ” says my friend Alessandra Stanley. For years pundits have asked, when only men were running, which candidate you’d want to have a beer with.

There are a lot of male candidates with likability problems. Some, such as Andrew Cuomo, a three-term governor of a large state, are so unlikable they aren’t even mentioned as contenders.

As for appearance, Ms. Stanley says, “It’s true that women draw comment for what they wear far more than men do, but men have their own problems. Women get attacked if they look too frumpy, and men get attacked if they look too vain. Let’s not forget John Edwards and his haircut and videographer.” If Joe Biden runs we’ll hear about tanning beds and teeth whiteners. If Sen. Sherrod Brown runs we’ll joke about his hair.

As for makeup, it is a decision, not a burden. We’re lucky we can be made to look better than men, poor dears. Female candidates should play it as they please.

Ms. Warren doesn’t seem to pay a lot of attention to such things and looks fine. Ms. Harris, who does, and seems to enjoy her beauty, also looks fine. Angela Merkel has no apparent physical vanity, which seems to have been OK with Germany. Golda Meir gave not a thought to how she looked, which was fine with Israel. Theresa May seems eager to be appropriate, no more. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, worked it. She got that extra hour in the morning by having only coffee and vitamins for breakfast. She thought a leader should be well turned out and took enjoyment in being handsomely put together—full makeup, hair done, nice suit or dress, heels. “She thought and said that women had to be twice as good as men—and I believe that looking good was part of that ‘twice,’ ” her adviser and speechwriter John O’Sullivan tells me.

And there was something else, an element of past repression. Mr. O’Sullivan says Thatcher grew up near a Catholic church and, as a Methodist child, used to see the girls her age making their first Holy Communion in white dresses and bright ribbons. “If you wore a ribboned dress,” Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, “an older chapel-goer would shake his head and warn against the ‘first step to Rome.’ ” She longed for pretty things and as an adult wore them.

That’s sweet, isn’t it? She wore perfume too. She enjoyed being a girl.

I close with a note from a friend, a great liberal of many years. “The more masculine qualities that a woman has who’s running for president, the better off she is. Margaret Thatcher had all the forceful qualities that one associates with male politicians, and therefore was considered not so different from a man. She was held to the same standards as male politicians and was not found wanting.”

That may still be the ticket: Honestly feminine, however that looks, and as forceful as—and more serious than—the boys.