Some Lessons, But Few Portents
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
emocrats are understandably touting their gain of control of the US House of Representatives as the major electoral victory from the 2018 midterm elections. They shouldn't be.
In practical terms, loss of the House will have little impact on President Trump's ability to pursue his policy agenda. Unless the Democrats can discover 12,000 missing votes in Florida, Republican control of the Senate is more solid than before.
If the result in Florida is upheld, Trump will no longer be dependent on the good graces of Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake to get his judicial nominees through the Senate. (The latter two retired.) That's good news for Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic now sitting on the Seventh Circuit, and Trump's likely next choice in the event of a vacancy on the Supreme Court. She would be too suspect in the eyes of Murkowski and Collins on abortion "rights" to pass muster. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can be expected to act quickly to fill any openings in the federal judiciary and other positions in the Department of Justice and State Department where nominees to important positions have been languishing.
In addition, the president can carry on with his agenda of reducing that regulatory burden, which has contributed substantially to releasing the "animal spirits" of capitalism in his first two years in office. Nothing more than a pen to sign executive orders is needed. Nor will Congress impede his conduct of foreign policy any more than it deterred President Obama, when Democrats held neither house of Congress. Foreign policy remains in the hands of the White House.
As the party of smaller government, the Republicans do not have to enact an ambitious legislative agenda — another reason that the loss of the House is less painful. If the Democrats hope to create any legislative record upon which to run — for instance, reforms to Obamacare to make it viable — they will have to negotiate, not just resist.
At most, the new Democratic majority in the House can make life difficult for the president by pursuing multiple investigations and engaging in a doomed attempt to impeach Justice Kavanaugh. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who will be the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was heard threatening to do precisely that the day after the elections. But doing so would likely prove to be political poison.
The president should make sure he has top-notch White House counsel. If he does, he should have no more trouble stiffing House investigators than President Obama did.
Ironically, the biggest blow to Trump's agenda may well prove to be self-inflicted. His first move after the elections was to fire Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who was the first senator to support Trump's run for president. As a senator from Alabama, Sessions anticipated much of Trump's nationalist vision and was the leading anti-immigration hawk. He spoke frequently of how an influx of poorly educated immigrants suppresses wages of low-income Americans.
Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute writes: "[Sessions] knew the myriad tactics through which the nation's career bureaucrats and immigration advocates had abetted mass illegal entry, and set out to block them." And the executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, Jonathan Thompson, praised Sessions as probably the most effective attorney-general ever in the eyes of law enforcement.
It is understandable that President Trump has grown fed-up with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's never-ending investigation, which was facilitated by Sessions' proper recusal of himself from all matters related to the Russian investigation. And it is also understandable that he should want someone in the Justice Department who can inform Mueller that he does not have a blank check in terms of resources or time, and should bring his investigation to a conclusion. Still, a classier way of replacing Sessions should have been found.
THE ELECTION RESULTS do little to tell us the likely result of the 2020 presidential election. Democratic gains in the House were moderate by historical standards. The 33 seats [Ed. that number now looks closer to forty, still far less than the 66 seats lost by the Democrats in 2010] lost by the Republicans were about half of the Democratic losses in the midterms of President Obama's first term in office. [Ed. That number now looks closer to forty, still far less than the 66 seats lost by the Democrats in 2010.] President Clinton lost not only the House but also the Senate in the midterm elections of his first term. Yet both men went on to be reelected comfortably.
The Republicans caught two important breaks going into the midterms. The first was the manner in which the Democrats overplayed their hand in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. The hearings erased the Republican enthusiasm deficit heading into the midterms. The second was the nightly broadcast of a caravan of Honduran asylum seekers making their way to the US border. So, in a sense, the Democrats get a big assist in the failure to do better.
President Trump proved to be still popular with his base. His campaigning proved helpful to senatorial candidates Mike Braun in Indiana, Josh Hawley in Missouri, and to the losing effort of Matt Rosendale in Montana. Only in Arizona, where the Republican candidate, former combat fighter pilot Martha McSally, appears to have lost narrowly to Kyrsten Sinema — who once pronounced the decision of American citizens to go abroad to fight for the Taliban, post 9/11, to be an unobjectionable personal choice — did he not work any magic. McSally's apparent loss might well be the last revenge of Arizona's two Never Trump senators, the retiring Jeff Flake and the late John McCain.
In general, it is clear that President Trump's policies are considerably more popular than he is. A large majority of voters credit him with an economy humming along at rates of growth that we were constantly told during the Obama years were never again attainable, and they have duly noticed their improved economic security. The dramatic job creation in the black community gives Trump an opportunity to make inroads in the Democrats' most loyal constituency. Nor do most voters want an open borders immigration policy.
If it were only a matter of "It's the economy, stupid," Trump would be headed for re-election, barring a dramatic economic downturn. But the majority of voters continue to be put off by the president personally. The Democrats' biggest successes came in upper-middle class suburban districts, where WASPS increasingly vote Democrat, while working class and lower-middle class whites have abandoned the party for the Republicans.
To a large extent, the result in 2020 will be determined by which party proves better able to learn from past mistakes, i.e., who is less stupid. Aside from a handful of safe Democratic districts, progressive Democrats did not fare well at the congressional level. The leading progressive darlings, Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke, Geogia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and Florida's gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum all lost, albeit not by wide margins.
Yet, with the exception of the superannuated Joe Biden, all the current leading Democratic contenders for the 2020 nomination hail from the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party — e.g., the aforementioned Sanders and Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. The latter two competed during the Kavanaugh hearings for the title of champion of the Resist branch of the Democratic Party. Trump would be delighted to run against any of them. Nor are there any young Democrats to compare to the bright and articulate Republicans in waiting: Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, Nikki Haley, and the newly elected Josh Hawley.
For his part, the most effective thing President Trump could do to be reelected would be to put his Twitter account to bed. He has already secured his base and his reputation as a fighter. Now, he would be well-advised to modulate his rhetoric. With respect to the Honduran caravan, for instance, it would have been sufficient to make clear that a country must control its borders and to leave aside any derogatory comments about the human beings forming the caravan.
Alas, nothing to date suggests the president is capable of moderating his behavior or language for long — or heeding the advice of cooler-headed advisers.
Each party in 2020 may find itself looking to the other party's candidate to save them. Just like 2016.
Addendum: Upon further reflection, I'm inclined to think that the results are worse for President Trump and the Republicans than I first thought, though not dramatically so.