BY SHASHI MALLA
In the recent Congressional and gubernatorial elections in the United States, Trump and his Republican Party got a bloody nose. Republicans did retain the Senate with a slight majority, but lost governorships and the House majority. Because of vote recounts, the complete results are still pending, but the overall picture has given Donald Trump a foul mood. The American electorate did not buy his ‘MAGA’ diatribe [‘Make America Great Again’]. As “The Washington Post” commented: “Trump likes to throw Twitter bombs that explode in concentric circles of offensiveness. He delivers speeches that contain insults and falsehoods. He announces policies on a whim, some constitutionally questionable.” Very recently, at the centenary of Armistice Day of World War I in Paris, Trump looked dour and isolated among world leaders. He didn’t say much but still managed to outrage at almost every turn.
After two years of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party is now the party of Donald J. Trump. It is inextricably bound up with the political fortunes of the incumbent president. Although enjoying majorities in both the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives, as well as the upper house, the Senate, the Republicans – at the goading of Trump — did attack the previous president Barack H. Obama’s signature legislation on health insurance, the “Affordable Care Act”, also known as “Obama Care”, but failed miserably. The Republicans, again at the urging of Trump, did manage to pass legislation on considerable tax reductions. However, this was a reduction for corporations and the rich, not for the middle class and the poor. The Republican Congress also managed to push through Trump’s candidate for the Supreme Court – Judge Brett Kavanaugh, although he had been accused of sexual harassment when still a teenager.
Thus, in the weeks leading up to the mid-term elections on November 6, the US federal political edifice was firmly in the hands of Trump and his Republican Party. All the three branches of the state, the Executive (the presidency and the government, including the bureaucracy), the Legislature or Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) and the Judiciary (the US Supreme Court) were firmly Republican. The much vaunted system of ‘checks and balances’ of the American Constitution was compromised. To any casual observer of the American political system, Donald Trump was having a field day, he was literally ‘making hay while the sun shines’. There seemed to be virtually no method to his madness, there was no check to his unilateral actions. With very few exceptions, international leaders were aghast at what Trump was doing [or not doing]. To serious analysts, he was not only undermining international institutions, rules and regulations, but US institutions and organizations, the very substance of American politics itself. The greatly vaunted ‘separation of powers’ was on paper only.
Going into the midterm elections, Trump was at an historical disadvantage. No incumbent US president’s political party – however popular he might have been – has won the midterm elections, especially the House of Representatives. It seems that the American electorate favors a split political system, i.e. opposing parties in the executive and the legislature, perhaps to strengthen the ‘system of checks and balances’. In recent history, even such popular presidents like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama suffered this fate. It was, therefore, expected that Trump too would not be spared by the American public. In addition, representative polls were showing that Trump was historically very low in the public favor – just about 38 percent. In Texas, Senator Ted Cruz (also a presidential contender in 2016) fended off a strong challenge by Democratic rising star Beto O’Rourke [vaunted as the new John F. Kennedy] The mid-term elections were a referendum on Trump’s presidency and he was judged woefully wanting. His artful but exaggerated claim of “a tremendous victory” (counting only the meager success in the Senate and governorships) was wildly off the mark.
In the Senate, the Democratic Party was defending more than 25 seats (many in states that had elected Trump in 2016), and the Republican Party only 7, and thus the chances of the Democrats winning a majority in the upper house were very slim from the start. It came to pass that they lost a few seats allowing the Republicans to increase their majority. This will allow them to confirm executive appointments much more easily than before, and play a more robust role [if only they choose to] in foreign affairs. Thus, it may look that the Senate result is a vindication of Trump’s policies, but because of a divided Congress, it may turn awkward for Trump in many ways, above all because he is so unpredictable.
It was a complete different story in the House of Representatives. All 435 seats were to be elected. In the past two years of his presidency, Trump had managed to disaffect, disillusion, frustrate and alienate both critics and supporters to a lesser and larger degree. Educated white American women in the suburbs, African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans and young people in general were all aghast with Trump’s antics and flocked to Democrats. Trump’s last minute attempt to garner votes by rousing fear of immigrants – especially the so-called invasion by hordes of Central Americans [the so-called ‘Caravan’] did not succeed. It only stabilized his crude base.
Because of their majority in the House, Democrats have again become a force in American politics. They now have ‘oversight’ of the president and the executive – a function purposely neglected by House Republicans. They can obstruct policies they find disagreeable. However, they must be very careful the next two years until the 2020 presidential elections, so as not to appear obstructionist, which could be used by Trump and the Republicans. In any case, House Democrats will be able to launch investigations, and may demand his long-hidden tax returns. In the extreme case, they could also launch impeachment proceedings against him. Trump will definitely need to work with Democrats to get his policies approved. If this augurs the return of ‘bipartisanship’, it’s easier said than done. It is difficult to envisage Trump abandoning his confrontational attitude, his playing to his ultra-nationalist charged-up base. After all, he has effectively divided his country, and for all intents and purposes the 2020 presidential elections have already begun. The question is whether any courageous Republican will emerge to challenge Trump
Since some of the more high profile new wave Democrats did not make it to Congress or the governorships, like Beto O’Rourke (for the Senate) and Andrew Gillum (for Governor) in Texas, it is an open question whether an ‘old-school Democrat or a new progressive candidate will arise to challenge Trump in 2020.
Technically and institution-wise, nothing will change for the next two months until Congress convenes on January 3 of next year. House Democrats will vote on who will be the speaker. It will probably be Nancy Pelosi, who held the post until 2010, when the Democrats lost their majority. She will be the most powerful Democrat until a national challenger to Trump emerges. In the last two years, she was one of the political opponents whom Trump made fun of continuously.
The fact that competing parties are now in control of the two chambers of Congress does not necessarily mean ‘gridlock’, that the whole machinery of the American system of government comes to a standstill (like a traffic jam). It will also not lead to frequent government ‘shutdown’ when Congress doesn’t agree on funding for government operations. On both accounts, the Democrats will try to avoid the slightest impression of ‘obstruction’ which will not stand well with the US electorate.
Indeed, the Democrats may take the initiative so that Congress has an opportunity to influence the government’s foreign policy and repair the damage that Trump has ‘accomplished’ till date. The US Constitution entrusts Congress with more authority over foreign affairs than widely believed. After all, it has the power of the purse, the potential to declare war, and the authority to regulate the armed forces, trade, and immigration. It may even be the beginning of the end of “Trumpism’ as we know it.
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
U. S. Midterm Congressional & Gubernatorial Elections: Domestic & External Challenges for Trump
BY SHASHI MALLA