Here’s what this month’s midterm elections can predict about the looming 2020 presidential election: nothing.
So, let’s look at what really happened in the most expensive midterm elections in U.S. history to set the stage for that White House contest in just 103 weeks.
As fascinating and even vicious as some campaigns were this fall, much of the staggering $5.2 billion spent to sway voters was wasted. Campaigns produced more incitement than inspiration. And this time, Americans collectively ended up tweaking in revealing ways the collection of politicians they dispatched to Talk City.
Democrats did retake the House after eight years of powerlessness. But there was no blue wave. In fact, the Democrats’ gains of 30-plus seats were less than the 40 expected when a president’s job approval is below 50 percent.
President Donald Trump mobilized nearly two out of three voters on both sides in what was hailed — pathetically — as a record midterm turnout of 113 million, barely 49 percent.
Elsewhere in the world, people are murdered for exercising that sacred right. Yet even given weeks of early voting, more than half of eligible Americans couldn’t be bothered.
The antipathy to Trump and his behavior, plus the departures of three dozen Republican incumbents, was sufficient to flip the House.
It wasn’t accidental that in their usually judicious way, voters enjoying a booming economy threw out barely half as many House members in the president’s party this time as they did in the first midterms of the last two Democratic presidents.
These fresh minds and energies have the potential to rejuvenate sclerotic House Democrats, whose coastal leadership is unburdened by new ideas, was unanimously born before Pearl Harbor and acts like it. Nancy Pelosi may be the first speaker to regain the gavel in six decades. But steam for change is building within her younger caucus.
In the last 21 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost on average four Senate seats. Barack Obama lost six in 2010, Bill Clinton eight in 1994.
This time, voters opted to increase the GOP’s Senate majority, possibly by four or five. They expelled Democratic senators who supported that shameful burlesque opposing Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. Only West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who voted to confirm, survived re-election.
This pattern returns Washington to the divided government historically preferred, with one party reining in and/or mercilessly harassing the other. Gridlock can be good if the country — or at least the half that voted — is about evenly split on where it should go.
It was probably preordained that Trump would declare an “almost total victory” focused on Senate results, not the House. Nine of the 11 candidates he rallied for were victorious, thanks to the 72-year-old’s amazing pace and reliable base.
Two acts reveal Trump’s real thoughts: One, he faced reality and called for bipartisanship. “Now is the time for members of both parties to join together,” he said in an otherwise combative news conference, “put partisanship aside, and keep the American economic miracle going strong.”
And two, within 24 hours of the polls closing, Trump totally blew up the news cycle by firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. His departure was long expected. But if you’re sincerely celebrating an “almost total” election win, you don’t change the subject immediately by canning your very first Senate supporter.
These days, no one makes predictions two months out, let alone two years. But what can we expect in the meantime? A lot of bipartisan talk, maybe a little action.
The GOP was a party of convenience for Trump, a longtime donor to Democrats, including Pelosi. If she can leash her caucus’ impeachment dogs already foaming at the mouth, the pair may consummate a deal on, say, infrastructure spending, useful evidence for 2020 that both can accomplish something.
Trump is, after all, a pragmatist and no fiscal hawk. The president’s noisiest party critics are gone, including most centrists. The new senators owe him. The GOP is now his party, for better or worse, and he’s developed a professional working relationship with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
With a larger majority, their ambitious drive to remake the federal judiciary can continue, possibly the longest-lasting political change they can engineer. Trump already has two justices on the Supreme Court and two of the surviving liberals there are in their eighties.
The Democratic Party is headed by, well, anyone’s guess. Bill Clinton’s centrist mantra looks as weathered as he does. And Obama’s coalition was trampled in the stampede to the left. He was 0-4 helping candidates this fall.
Democrats could have more than 20 presidential hopefuls wrestling in the primaries. They’re senators, ex-senators, defeated Senate wannabes, outside lawyers and, oh, look, even another New York billionaire who’s conveniently switched parties.
Both parties have repair work to do — Democrats in the countryside, Republicans in the suburbs.
What’s clear, if obscured by conflicting victory laps, is that dozens of congressional races were decided by unusually slim margins, less than 5 percent.
This newly-emerging abundance of swing districts suggests the historical pattern of one party’s enduring control of one or two chambers is as dead as civil debate seems to be. De facto term limits, finally.
Viewed one way, that would make federal politics routinely more volatile. Viewed another, that could make Congress more quickly reflective of the swift social, demographic, economic and political changes sweeping America this century. And both could happen at the same time.