יום רביעי, 7 בנובמבר 2018

Trump's Narrative vs. Pelosi's Subpoenas

Both sides see a victory in Tuesday's results. But the ground is shifting beneath Republicans' feet.

Democrats wanted a base of power in Donald Trump’s Washington and they got it.

They also wanted to wake up Wednesday morning to a radically changed country. They wanted permission to dismiss the past two years as a fluke of history, a hallucination now fading. And they wanted something more: to rub the president’s nose in the dirt of defeat and repudiation so badly that it would be hard to see him doing more than limp through the balance of his first term, much less with a credible path to a second.

Those things Democrats did not get.

To the contrary, the GOP defeat was not nearly as severe as the Democratic one in 2010, at a similar point in Barack Obama’s presidency, nor the one two years into Bill Clinton’s first term in 1994.

This leaves 2018 as the “Yes, but” election—not fully satisfying but by no means fully deflating for partisans of either side.

Yes: the Democratic march into once-unfavorable suburban terrain across the country was impressive. No amount of prattle about the “expectations game” or historical averages can diminish the reality that Nancy Pelosi is poised to retake the speaker’s gavel and the vast appropriations and investigatory power this gives the opposition party to check a hostile executive.

But: There is scant evidence of a mandate for a scorched-earth pursuit of Trump, and Tuesday’s gains in the Senate for Republicans (as well as the recent Brett Kavanaugh nomination battle that likely contributed to this outcome) underline the risks of this approach. Despite pouring tens of millions into the effort, Democrats failed to take down many of the national Republican characters they view as most loathsome and villainous – among them Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Iowa Rep. Steve King, who lives on to freely offer his insights on immigration and white nationalism to domestic and international audiences.

Yes: Republican statewide victories in Florida, over a Senate seat and the governorship, as well as a governor’s victory in Ohio and basically a tie for the statehouse in Wisconsin despite Scott Walker’s narrow loss, indicate that the electoral path Trump navigated to the presidency in 2016 remains plausible in 2020.

But: The midterms offered redundant evidence (some GOP strategists have been warning of this for a generation) that the party’s base is predominately rural in a country growing more urban and suburban, predominately white and culturally conservative in a country growing more diverse and culturally tolerant. Do Republicans really think that losing a majority of people who voted – as they did in 2016 and did again Tuesday night – but clinging to power through institutions designed to buffer democracy like the Senate and Electoral College is a wise strategy long-term?

The suburbs, which formed the bedrock of the Republican Party for half a century, are increasingly Democratic ground. The slow suburban exodus from the GOP has accelerated and even expanded beyond the Midwest and Northeast to the South and across the Sunbelt. Name the big metro – Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia – and chances are there’s a Republican incumbent who lost Tuesday night or barely escaped.

Whose fault is it? Yes/but will hardly help the cause of assigning accountability for the occasional function and more customary dysfunction of Washington — particularly with a president who is quick to blame his travails on Democrats, or the media, or overzealous prosecutors, or on his own Cabinet appointees.

Even so, people who hoped that a country that has produced a generation of remorseless political combat, and whose citizens when it comes to politics and much else view each other with such sullen distrust, could produce a result more emphatic and clarifying were plainly hoping for too much.

Nor was this muddled result a historical anomaly. In Gallup's polling history, presidents with job approval ratings below 50 percent have seen their party lose 37 House seats, on average, in midterm elections. That compares with an average loss of 14 seats when presidents had approval ratings above 50 percent.

For all midterm elections since 1946, the average midterm loss for the president’s party is 25 U.S. House seats. Only two presidents, Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002, saw their party gain seats in a midterm election.

In a previous generation, there was significant evidence of genuine swing voters, people who might regularly bounce between parties, who might actually vote for a president but also vote for divided government to keep him on leash. There are still plenty of people who profess to favor this, though election analysts say there is not much evidence—in an era of cultural sorting and ideological polarization—of people who actually vote this way.

By accident or design, however, divided government of the sort Trump will now preside over is the historical norm. In the 38 years since Ronald Reagan’s victory, presidents have faced having at least one chamber of Congress controlled by the opposition party in 28 years.

And while this would never be something a president with strong policy ambitions would wish for, many of his predecessors have found it not altogether an uncongenial situation.

Clinton prospered politically after 1994 when he was able to contrast his relative moderation with what soon became the unpopularity of Newt Gingrich and his self-styled “revolutionaries.” George W. Bush was still able to implement his unpopular but militarily effective surge after his midterm “thumping” of 2006.

In general, however, those presidents had a degree of modesty about their new circumstances that would be unusual, so far, for Trump. A disoriented Clinton in 1994 summoned all manner of experts to Camp David—including fire-walking self-help guru Tony Robbins—to help him understand what happened and regain self-confidence. Bush in 2006 said his party had suffered a “thumping”; Obama in 2010 said Democrats had received a “shellacking.”

No one is expecting Trump to come forward in coming days with a message of self-critique or self-correction that by all evidence he believes is wholly unnecessary. In fact, the president is likely to cherry-pick the results, pointing to the red-state Senate romp as evidence of the popularity of his agenda while dismissing the suburban losses as minimal, a culling of losers and malcontents that will ultimately strengthen the GOP herd.

Indeed, he already called Tuesday a “tremendous success” on Twitter and quoted the actor Ben Stein, of all people, saying, “This guy has magic coming out of his ears.”

Trump’s response was typical of the night’s mixed outcome: Yes, he kept the Senate, but was happy to avert his gaze from whatever traps House Democrats have in store for him.

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