7 November 2018

The midterms usher in a new, uneasy status quo in Washington


As in 2016, the polls were wrong. Sort of. In the run up to Tuesday’s midterm Congressional elections the pollsters had increasingly aligned under the presumption that the Republican Party would retain control of the Senate, and that Democrats would seize control of the House of Representatives.

And while Democrats did indeed take the House, they never came close to taking the Senate. That will greatly disappoint the legions of Democratic activists who believed that two years of Trump’s erratic behaviour would be more than enough to induce a blue wave. Instead, these elections have led only to new status quo that marginally favours Republicans. Why Republicans?

Well, because come next January they will control the White House, the Senate, and — via conservative-leaning justices — the Supreme Court. Moreover, in the revolutionary era of Trumpism, such a sustainment of power suggests that Trumpism is a movement with sustained viability. Republicans and Democrats alike were unsure as to whether that would be the case. But now the proof has been rendered.

But what does all this mean for the next two years and beyond?

Well, as I say, for President Trump, who has steadfastly refused to moderate his furious populist-partisan rhetoric, these results offer consolidation. Republicans might have lost control of the House, but their losses were not so severe as to implicate Trump as a politically compromised leader.

Indeed, judged against President Obama’s midterm record, Trump looks good. As an extension, Trump will look at the GOP’s retained Senate control and believe that he can maintain his current hyperactive style (assuming Mr. Mueller doesn’t induce his abrupt departure) without electoral risk. Is that good for America and the world? I suppose it depends on your perspective.

For Democrats, the result is a marginal disappointment. On the positive side, America’s liberal party has shown that it can win again. The psychological importance of the House victory cannot be understated here. After all, for Democrats, the 2016 election blow was a gut punch of supreme proportions: fraying Democratic nerves, it also engendered the rise of far-left politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. By proving to themselves that they can take on Trump and win, Nancy Pelosi’s incoming House caucus will find itself better situated to campaign towards a 2020 presidential victory.

But as I say, the Democratic result is a marginal disappointment. First off, there was no great blue wave the washed aside Republicans across the country. That so many voters still voted for Trump’s party after two years of his governance is cause for Democratic introspection.

Certainly, party leaders will fear that they are losing possible support by skewing to the left on identity politics and proposals such as Medicare-for-all. This concern is further emphasised by poor Democratic performances at the state level. With the usual aside of the centrist West Virginia Democrat, Joe Manchin, Tuesday’s results prove that Democrats remain vulnerable in federal elections in conservative-leaning states. Exemplifying this weakness, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana were both sent packing.

It gets worse, because the great Democratic hope for a national renewal, Texas’ senate candidate, Beto O’Rourke was also defeated by incumbent Senator Ted Cruz. Andrew Gillum, favourite to win the Florida governor’s mansion, was also defeated. That matters because Gillum was seen as a Democratic prototype as to whether a liberal minority candidate could win in a nominally conservative state. All of this will temper Democratic excitement about 2020.

For Republicans the trend lines are simpler. The GOP’s retention of the Senate will obviously lead to relief: Republicans know that had Democrats taken control of the Senate and the House, they would have buried the Trump administration in damaging Congressional investigations. They might also have been able to extract higher spending from Trump in return for passing budgets.

That said, party elites will be concerned by the loss of marginal Republican seats such as that of Barbara Comstock in Virginia. And in the context of exit poll data that suggests young voters have overwhelmingly rebuked the GOP brand, party leaders will worry that President Trump is toxifying the long-term Republican brand.

The associated problem is that Trump is almost certain to totally ignore Republican requests that he soften his rhetoric. Over the next two years, the margin of youth disenchantment with the GOP is thus likely to grow. This is bad news for the Republican Party’s long-term electoral prospects.

Ultimately, then, the 2018 Midterms add up to a new balance of marginally Republican held power. But Democrats now have a powerful seat at the table and a means to exert much greater functional pressure on Trump. So while there will be areas for compromise, we’re in for a very interesting and – likely, very partisan – next couple of years.

Tom Rogan is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a former panellist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute.