Nobody wants to compromise in American politics these days — except, that is, for the voters. This week’s midterms confirmed that a majority of the minority of Americans who bother to vote share Thoreau’s sentiment: “That government is best which governs least.”
But the voters of America don’t share Thoreau’s purpose. The grumpy hermit of Concord had in mind a small government, and preferably none at all. The American voters, however, can live with a big government, especially if it provides roads, jobs, schools and healthcare, not forgetting economic intervention to save the remains of outsourced industries.
What the voters don’t want is a government free to do big things for four years at a time. For most Americans, that government is best which can’t govern much because it’s split. Thus it came to pass, yet again, that an allegedly radical midterm transformation — the surfing into Congress of dozens on Democrats on a big Blue Wave — failed to add up, and followed the historical pattern.
Since the Civil War, the president’s party has gained seats one only three occasions: 1934, 1998 and 2002. Only one of those presidents, George W. Bush, was a Republican. His gains in 2002 occurred in the window of fear, goodwill and apparent competence that occurred after the 9/11 attacks, but before the invasion of Iraq.
In every midterm since the Great Depression, the party of the presidential incumbent has lost an average of 27 seats in the House of Representatives. By Sunday evening, with 10 seats of 435 still to declare, the Democrats were on 227 and the Republicans on 198, with a swing of 28 seats. The Democrats have “flipped the House” far enough to block further Republican legislation, but they haven’t flipped it as far as they hoped.
The punditry spent the rest of the week tying up its pre-election storyline about a Big Blue Wave. The argument over whether the House result was a blue rivulet or even a purple flood obscured the Senate result. By Sunday evening, with 97 of 100 seats declared, the Republicans had held the Senate and look set to increase their 52-48 majority. If political life is a beach, we could say that the Big Red Wall turned out to be as substantial as the Big Blue Wave. Which is how the public prefers it.
Donald Trump declared victory, because the Republican defeat wasn’t total. But in legislative terms, he will spend the next two years as a ginger Gulliver, pinned down by a Democratic-controlled House. He will live with this. The House Republicans have already produced all the legislation that they thought might get past the Senate filibuster and their party’s Senate moderates. Trump may now beat Obama’s record for Executive Orders, and enjoy doing it.
Meanwhile, a stronger Republican Senate means that the Republicans can continue shaping the judicial agenda of the future, by nominating federal judges and, should the opportunity arise, nominating the Trump administration’s third judge to the Supreme Court. Tuesday’s vote also gives the Republicans a small starting advantage in the 2020 races. Jeff Sessions, fired by Trump on Wednesday morning, may now run for, and presumably win, a seat in Alabama.
Strategists from both parties sank into Great Depressions of their own as they crunched the numbers. The Republicans lost Senate votes in the suburbs, and in the Midwestern states that put Trump into the White House in 2016. The Democrats carried the popular vote for the House (51.2 per cent to 47.1 per cent) and Senate (49.2 per cent to 48.4 per cent), just as they won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential elections. This allows the Democrats to claim that the Blue Wave existed, but that it didn’t land with equal force in all regions of the country. This is true, and not just because the states on both of America’s left coasts are already blue.
Democrats will also claim that something is wrong in a system in which they win the popular vote for the Senate but lose two seats, with the prospect of losing another two when the final counts are in. This may be true, though given the partisan madness of American democracy, this might not be the time to start tinkering with the Electoral College. This issue won’t go away: Republican governors will use the next two years to gerrymander themselves into a stronger position for 2020 and 2022.
The Democrats now send a younger, more left-wing cohort to the House, but many of the left-wing candidates who were supposed to be surfing the Blue Wave wiped out at the polls in competitive districts. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke, despite floating a campaign on a tide of out-of-state money, lost to Ted Cruz by 2.6 per cent. In Georgia’s gubernatorial election, where Stacey Abrams might have become the country’s first black female governor, Brian Kemp held on narrowly amid allegations of voter suppression. On Friday, Abrams said that she does not accept the result. You can see why, because the evident sloppiness of the Georgia elections is not unique in America’s rather decayed electoral system.
So neither party got what it wanted, but the public got what it needs: a respite, a sense of balance and business as usual. Unfortunately, this lasted all of one night. On Wednesday morning, Trump fired Jeff Sessions, the attorney general who had recused himself from the Mueller Enquiry, and replaced him with Matthew Whitaker who, despite being Sessions’ deputy, has previously opined that the whole Trump-Russia business might be overdone.
By the end of the week, the lines of battle on the Whitaker appointment had been drawn. The anti-Trumpers, citing the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, argue that Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney-general was unconstitutional, because he had not undergone a Senate confirmation. The administration and the Justice Department argue that Whitaker had been appointed under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which permits the immediate promotion of a senior federal employee for a 90-day term.
This is the first round of what may become the major event of the next two years. The younger and more left-wing Democrats in the House are champing at the bit of impeachment. The older and more Clintonite party managers are in less of a hurry, but may not be able to resist a Blue Wave from their own benches. The evidence for impeachment will come from Robert Mueller’s investigations. If you were Donald Trump, you’d want someone like Matthew Whitaker, running interference from the attorney general’s office.
Both parties notched successes in the midterms. Both parties did it by playing to their base and pushing to the extremes. Trump has now pursued this strategy so well, and House Republicans have played along with it so sedulously, that he controls the party. The question is, can the Democrats win in 2020 with the failed strategy of 2016?
First one to the middle ground wins? A majority of the public would probably prefer that, but the system and the current mood won’t permit it. The theme of the next two years will be impeachment. The Republican Senate, at least on current form and evidence, will block the process. Divisions and delegitimisation will worsen. The government will govern less. Nobody, despite having voted this week for a divided House, will be any the happier. Apart, that is, from Donald Trump, for whom that government is best in which he governs most.