Andrew Coyne: Election warning signs ominous for Trump in the long term
In a just world, in a country that still remembered what justice looked like, Americans would have seized the opportunity of the midterm elections to rise up against a president, and the party that sustains him, that have violated every norm, debased every standard, inflamed every prejudice, and corrupted (or attempted to) every institution of democratic government.
In 1974, for example, Americans responded to the Watergate revelations by voting decisively against the Republican party. The Democrats won the popular vote in that year’s elections to the House of Representatives by a 17-point margin on the way to picking up nearly 50 seats.
Alas, this is not that world and America is no longer that country. So the rebuke to Donald Trump on Tuesday night was rather more muted. When all of the votes are counted, the Democratic margin in the House vote may be as high as 7 percentage points. The party will probably gain 30-odd seats, more in line with a typical midterm election than a “wave” or realignment.
As it happened, moreover, three-quarters of the Senate seats up for grabs this time out (only one-third of the Senate is in play in any one election) were held by Democrats, meaning the party had many more opportunities to lose seats than to win them. In fact it appears to have lost as many as four, allowing the Republicans to claim a split decision, or even a “very Big Win,” in the president’s typically dishonest formulation.
- Conrad Black: An electoral draw, but as always, astonishing theatre
- Kelly McParland: So much for the Democrats’ hammer blow against Trumpism
- Colby Cosh: Making sense of America’s midterm elections: is it even possible?
So no, this was not the kind of cathartic, comprehensive repudiation one might have wished. Faced with the unprecedented barrage of lies, incompetence, chaos, and abuse of power that are the administration’s least objectionable features, in an election that was very clearly a referendum on the Trump presidency, nearly half the American electorate shrugged and gave it a pass.
In part this reflects the deep partisan divide in American politics, a reflexive enemy-of-my-enemy posture, particularly among the Trump base, that excuses or simply denies behaviour that would have destroyed any previous president. In part it is a tribute to Trump’s Olympian shamelessness, his own refusal to be held to any civilized norm making it increasingly impossible for anyone else to do so.
In part, too, it is the fruit of a 3.7-per-cent unemployment rate. Even if Trump had little to do with it — it had already declined to 4.7 per cent by the time he took office — a buoyant economy, other things being equal, ought to weigh heavily in an incumbent’s favour. Indeed, a note to clients from the JPMorgan Chase investment bank finds “adjusted for economic and market conditions, the 2018 midterm election represents the worst House retention by any president in 100 years.”
Not that he or his acolytes are ever likely to admit this. Still, whatever interpretations are placed upon them, as a practical matter the results are a significant setback to the president, and in the longer term may presage further declines for Republicans generally.
It is hardly a footnote that one of the houses of Congress is now in the hands of the opposition. Republican control of both houses has been a material factor in enabling Trump’s abuses. Or rather, it has been the refusal of the Republicans to exercise the sort of oversight of the executive the Congress is mandated to provide, occupied as they were in passing a $2-trillion unfunded tax cut and failing to come up with a replacement for Obamacare.
The most immediate consequence of the election, then, is to at last subject the president to some sort of congressional scrutiny. This is particularly critical with respect to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian officials in 2016. Had the Republicans maintained control it is highly unlikely Mueller’s investigation would have been completed, or his report released. (As it is, the president’s post-election replacement of Jeff Sessions with a more pliant Trump loyalist as attorney general suggests the Democrats will have a fight on their hands to ensure the inquiry is not suppressed.)
Beyond that, with control of the various House committees, the Democrats will be able to pull at the many other tentacles of Trump lawlessness, calling witnesses and subpoenaing evidence, beginning with his tax records. Whether any of this leads to impeachment or prosecution is secondary: the more basic necessity is fact-finding.
Of course, the change of control in the House has other implications. Though the Democrats will not be able to pass legislation without the approval of the Republican-held Senate, neither can the Republicans now without the Democrats’ consent. The two sides will either have to find some modus vivendi, or more likely, compete to blame each other for the resulting gridlock.
But it is in the longer term that the election portents are most ominous for the Republicans. Trump is probably right to boast that his strident late-campaign appeals to racial fear helped save the Senate for the GOP. But the fervency of Republican support is matched by its increasing narrowness.
As the exit polls show, it is overwhelmingly white, in a society in which whites are a steadily declining share of the population; rural, in a society that continues to urbanize; less educated, in a society that is growing more educated; religious, in a society that is rapidly secularizing. And it leans heavily on the personality cult surrounding a man who is 72 years old.
In 2016, enough college-educated, suburban whites were willing to hold their noses and vote Republican, notwithstanding their misgivings about Trump, to put them, and him, over the top. Will they do so again?