di Giorgio G. Farace
A blue ripple
Exactly a week ago, November 6, was Election Day in the United States. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives (whose term lasts only two years) and 35 out of the 100 Senate seats (whose term lasts six years) were contested. As most polls and predictions had forecast, Democrats gained back control of the House of Representatives after eight years of Republican dominance, while Republicans slightly expanded their majority in the Senate – not as bad as it sounds, since 26 of the contested seats previously belonged to Democrats. While several seats are still too close to call, some conclusions can be drawn from the results that are available today.
The first is an assessment of the Democrats’ performance in these elections. Historically, a loss of seats for the GOP was to be expected – on average, in the last 100 years the president’s party has lost 29 House seats in midterm elections. As of now, the Democrats are sure to have won at least 34 seats. However, this might not be enough for these results to qualify as a “Blue Wave”, which many Democrats hoped for given President Trump’s unpopularity – according to FiveThirtyEight, Trump has the lowest net approval for a president two years in since Harry Truman in 1946. If we consider a “wave” election one in the top 20% of seats lost by the president’s party, Democrats fell short of the 48 seats required (for reference, the Republicans had gained 63 seats under Obama in 2010).
To impeach or not to impeach?
So what now? Many Trump opposers had hoped that once Democrats gained (at least partial) control of Congress, impeachment procedures against the president could begin. While it is unlikely that the Republicans would vote to impeach Trump (a two-third majority would be required in the Senate), it is clear that without a majority in both chambers of Congress, Trump may not rest as easy as he used to. Shortly after Election Day, he requested that his Attorney General, Jeff Session, resign. The relationship between the two had deteriorated after Session decided, in March 2017, to recuse himself from overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation on Russian interference on the 2016 elections, which Trump interpreted as a sign of disloyalty.
Trump had decided to hold off on his decision to fire Sessions until after Tuesday, to avoid negatively impacting the elections. Choosing his Acting AG, Trump nominated Matthew G. Whitaker, Session’s chief of staff and critic of Mueller’s investigation, which he once called a potential “witch hunt” – a decision outside the usual plan of succession, according to which Rod J. Rosenstein, the Deputy AG, should have taken Session’s place. With a majority in the House, the Democrats could at least partially oversee some of the actions taken by Whitaker to protect Trump, and several Congresspeople have demanded that Rosenstein, who had been supervising Mueller’s investigation after Session’s recusal, continue in that role.
More to the point, Democrats have a difficult decision to make. With a majority in the House, they have the power to issue subpoenas and investigate Trump and his inner circle. For example, they have recently vowed to obtain Trump’s mysterious tax returns, which some speculate might contain information on the president’s murky financial ties with Russia and Saudi Arabia. Before the elections, several Democrats had also vowed to resume investigations on Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump nominated for the Supreme Court, after allegations of sexual misconduct were dismissed by the Senate after a very brief investigation. However, two years of war in Congress might prove counterproductive.
Getting stuff done
It is often said that presidential elections start immediately after midterms, and Democrats know well that tax returns don’t win elections. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader and in pole position for House Speaker, has expressed her opposition to an excessively adversarial stance against Trump. While impeachment is the wet dream of many Trump opposers, it can backfire horribly when voters aren’t fully on board. In the 1998 midterm elections, six years into Bill Clinton’s presidency, Democrats actually ended up gaining seats in the House – a historic feat, given that it was the first time in over 150 years that the president’s party won seats in the second midterms. Most commentators interpreted this upset as a consequence of the GOP’s attempt to impeach Clinton for perjury after the Lewinsky scandal, which many saw as unjustified.
If tax returns and judiciary hearings don’t win elections, what does? In these midterms, two were the key policy talking points: health care and immigration. After Republicans failed to amend Obama’s Affordable Care Act even with a majority in both branches of Congress, the Democrats now have the chance to protect and even expand access to health care for many Americans. And with a split Congress, it is likely that the Republicans will fail to secure funding to build the infamous wall on the border with Mexico, despite having based much of their national campaign on the threat of the migrant caravan in Central America.
However, to further the Democratic agenda, a compromise with the GOP would still have to be found. While the threat of investigations and impeachment can be an effective bargaining chip, an excessively combative stance would likely result two years of full-blown war, with accusations obstructionism potentially ruining the Democrats’ chances in 2020. Everybody knows this: Pelosi knows this, as she expressed the need for her party to act “strategically” and look for compromise wherever it may be found, and Trump knows this, as he openly warned that were the Democrats to choose war, little agreement on policy would be found: as he put it, “You can’t do them simultaneously”.
However, while Pelosi’s grip over the Democratic Party seems strong and her chances to be confirmed House Speaker in January appear high, several Congresspeople have expressed their desire for a new, younger party leadership, and for a stronger stance against Trump. Even more moderate Democrats might change their mind, were Mueller to produce any substantial evidence in the next few weeks – which he might have chosen to hold off from doing to avoid “Comeying” the midterms. However, if there is something, now is the time to show it. At the end of the day, what will happen in the next two years will largely depend on this: whether the Democrats will stick to diplomacy, or whether Mueller’s investigation will produce the ammunition to make war a more attractive option.