15 January 2018

2018 will be business as unusual as ever in Trump’s Washington


You can never plan the future by the past, Burke said. But we can know some of what we can expect in 2018. Already, abnormal service has resumed in Washington, DC.

The House and Senate are back at what passes for work. The media, outraged by the insider gossip of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, continues to enhance Donald Trump’s replacement of political content with personal style. And the reality television president keeps his ratings high, dominating Friday morning’s news and eclipsing the debate on immigration reform with an alleged vulgarism.

The plot lines of the 2018 series of The Trump Presidency are also already established: the fallout from the 2016 election, and the result of the 2018 midterms.

Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump circle’s Russian links seems likely to generate plenty of fury, but more smoke than fire. Trump may be damaged by the forced resignation of some aides and appointees, but the notion that he will be impeached by his own party is a fantasy.

Meanwhile, expect a couple of Russia-related plot twists that might not break in the Democrats’ favour. The Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has opened its own Russia enquiries. In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved an Obama administration’s deal to sell uranium to Russia—a deal alleged to have involved payments to the Clinton Foundation. And then there is the provenance of the “Steele dossier”, the anti-Trump allegations collected by an ex-British intelligence officer on behalf of the Democratic National Committee.

In November, the Republicans will lose seats in the midterm elections. This will be described as the end of Trumpism, a death blow to the Republicans, and the harbinger of a Democratic presidency in 2020. If, that is, it happens at all.

The past suggests that the party which holds the White House usually loses control of either or both of the House and Senate in the midterms. This happened to Ronald Reagan in 1982 (the House) and 1986 (the Senate), and to Bill Clinton in 1994 (the House), to George W. Bush in 2006 (House and Senate), and to Barack Obama in 2010 (the House) and 2014 (the Senate).

The exceptions to this rule were 1998, when the Republicans became the first out-of-presidency party since 1934 to fail to make gains in the House; and 2002, when George W. Bush, given a leadership dividend by 9/11, recovered the House and Senate from the Democrats. That anomaly made Bush the most powerful Republican president since Eisenhower.

Divided government is the modern norm of American politics. The notorious logjam of the American system is more the work of the voters, than the parties and the lobbyists. More Americans identify as political independents (39 per cent) than as Republicans (28 per cent) or Democrats (31 per cent). The independents split their votes in order to restrict the ideological enthusiasm of the parties.

So a floating voter who supported Trump in November 2016 could well support Democratic candidates for the House and Senate in November 2018. But can the Democrats plan their future on the basis of that past?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. In 2017 and 2018, Trump was in the same anomalous position as Eisenhower and George W. Bush. Of the three, only George W. Bush won the midterms from the White House. Eisenhower and Trump only inherited Republican majorities. Eisenhower lost both House and Senate in the 1954 midterms. Trump, the anomalous president, may well outdo Eisenhower, by retaining the Senate in November.

Today, the Republicans control the upper house by the slimmest of majorities, 51-49. But the Republicans will be defending only eight Senate seats in November, while the Democrats will be defending twenty-five seats. The Democrats might take Arizona and Nevada from the Republicans, but the Republicans may gain West Virginia, North Dakota, Minnesota and Ohio. On current form, the Republicans are heading for an atypical result in November, an increase in their Senate majority.

The Democrats will gain in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans currently have a 35-seat majority. The question is whether they will gain enough to win it. The Dow Jones is strong, and unemployment is low. The Obama years were disastrous for the Democrats at the state and local level. David Wasserman, who covers the House for the Cook Report, argues that the clustering of Democratic voters in urban districts and ‘GOP gerrymandering’ may prevent the Democrats from capitalizing on Trump’s low ratings and an energized Democrat base: “Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points — a pretty good midterm by historical standards — they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats.”

And what if the Republicans lose the House in November? The legislative successes of Bill Clinton’s presidency came through compromise after the 1994 midterms. 2017 showed that Trump’s objective is not to further the purist goals of party ideology, but to tick off his list of campaign promises and cut the federal government’s bills.

Trump has already indicated his willingness to work with Congressional Democrats. If he cannot obtain workable bills on infrastructure, immigration policy, and entitlements from a Republican Congress before November, he can get them after November, by using a Democratic-controlled House against the Republican-controlled Senate.

This will be the year in which Trump, having pummelled the Republicans in Congress, will start to pummel the Democrats. Previous presidents used bipartisanship as crisis management, after losing their Congressional majorities or, like Lyndon Johnson with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to pass legislation that had split their own parties. In the Trump presidency, bipartisanship is the crisis itself.

Bipartisanship would benefit Trump and the Republicans more than the Democrats. Divided government would allow Trump and the Republicans to pose as pragmatists, doing deals on the centre ground. Those same deals would further widen the divide between the Democratic base and leadership. And that would keep the Democrats off-balance in the race for the 2020 presidential election.

The least predictable factors in 2018 are not domestic, but foreign. Here too, the media, by chasing after Trump’s outrages, are mostly following the wrong story.

The apocalyptic coverage of Trump’s comments about North Korea obscures the fact that China and the US share a common interest in preventing the North Korean regime from upending the international order in the Pacific. But the rise of Iranian influence across the Middle East and beyond sets shared interests against partisan ones, and in an already unstable region.

In 2018, the anomalous president may find himself in a familiar presidential predicament: the choice between launching an unpopular war in the Middle East, as George W. Bush did, or permitting the erosion of American influence in Eurasia, as Barack Obama did.

Finally, the ramifications of Oprah Winfrey running for the presidency are so various as to defy prediction.

Dr Dominic Green is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and teaches Politics at Boston College