Gordon Campbell on why the Democratic leadership could now make fatal compromises with Trump

[Corrections : (a) Joseph Manchin III is the Democratic senator from West Virginia, not Georgia and (b) the House of Representatives plays no role in evaluating/confirming appointments to the Supreme Court.]

beto-imageOn the big picture, the poll predictions were dead right. In the end, the Democratic Party won a clear victory in the House, and lost as expected in the Senate, where it had been defending at least 10 seats in regions that had voted heavily for Trump in 2016. Obviously, the fairytale outcome didn’t eventuate. The wishful thinking that a Big Blue Wave would wash over the entire country and erase the nightmare of the Trump era was dashed early on, by the initial returns in a supposedly close Senate contest in Indiana (it never was) and from a tight Congressional race in Kentucky.

Florida, once again, effectively saved the bacon of the Republican Party. By winning both the Senate and governor’s races (however narrowly) in the Sunshine State, the Republicans could claim victory, regardless of the ground it lost elsewhere. More than ever the Republican Party is a creature of Donald Trump, in that in Georgia, Texas, Florida, the candidates willing to tie themselves to Trump did well. GOP moderates are now almost an extinct breed.

Even so, deep inroads were made. Across the Midwest and in formerly safe red states like Arizona, many normally safe Republican seats were either lost or are now sitting in the danger zone. Ominously for Trump 2020, the old Rust Belt triangle of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that had provided Trump with his freak route to the White House in 2016 all but reverted back into the Democratic column. Michigan in fact elected a liberal female Democrat as governor by a 12 point margin. It wasn’t a complete sweep, though. The Republicans continued to prosper yesterday in that other perennial swing state, Ohio.

Trump of course, will declare victory everywhere, regardless. Didn’t he do great, despite all the odds stacked against him by the nasty liberal fake media. The big question though is the one already being asked – how will this split between a lower chamber that’s Democrat and an upper chamber that’s Republican – play out in practice? The larger Senate majority won by the Trump party will mean that it is no longer restrained by the relatively liberal senators in its ranks, like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. By tightening its grip on the Senate, the Republicans have ensured that the Senate won’t become a roadbock for Trump’s future appointments to the Supreme Court.

That process will be an interesting test of just how genuine a restraint a Democratic House majority will be in practice. Theoretically, the need for Supreme Court appointments to also clear the House should force Trump to moderate his judicial choices, when the time comes for say, Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire. It may not work out like that. The Dems have only a slim House majority, and the Kavanaugh experience will make defections entirely possible. In Indiana and North Dakota, Democratic Senators who voted against confirming Kavanaugh both lose; Joe Manchin the only Democrat who voted for Kavanaugh won handily in Georgia. In exit polling 53% of Indiana voters said the Kavanaugh hearings were significant to them ; in North Dakota, the figure was 47%.

Those figures will be taken on board by Democrats in marginal seats. IMO it therefore seems premature for the likes of the Pod Save America crowd to be already cheering that the Dems’ control of the House now means that Obamacare is totally safe, and that Trump’s immigration policy and plans to pay for his tax cuts by attacking entitlements to Medicaid and Medicare are also utterly dead and buried.

Wish that it were so. Yet from tomorrow onwards, Trump will be painting the Democrats in the House as the negative, naysaying, nasty dogs-in-the-manger who are blocking all of his wonderful plans to Make America Great Again. Trump always needs a scapegoat, and the American voter has just delivered one to him. From now on, all of his failures until 2020 are going to be blamed on the gridlock in Washington caused by those treacherous, traitorous liberals. In other words, if the Dems act exactly like the Republicans did when they outrageously blocked President Barack Obama’s attempt to appoint the moderate judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Trump will demonise them.

Unfortunately, Trump may succeed. The Democrat’s main tactician in the House will be the next House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. In many respects, she is a Hillary clone. As Slate recently pointed out, the Democratic leadership embodied by Pelosi and by minority leader Chuck Schumer is almost pathologically inclined to display ‘borderline-comical caution and an over-estimation of Republican good faith’. They’ll be terrified of looking obstructionist. They’ll want to do a deal, especially on immigration. Trump will embrace that readiness, and probably eat them for lunch. If left to their own devices, Pelosi and Co will largely serve to humanise Trump’s excesses round the edges, but without changing his course to any significant degree.

What I’m getting at is that the House majority is going to open up the Democratic Party to some fierce internal arguments between its more radical members and the Party’s mainstream leadership. Given half a chance, Pelosi and Co will prefer to pitch the Democratic messaging to a now non-existent moderate political centre. That tendency explains why the current Democratic Party leadership have always been suckers for political rhetoric that professes to ‘reach across the aisle’.

The Democratic leadership class is reflexively timid on issues of policy, strategy, and style. As a recent piece in Dissent magazine by activist Mark Egerman and progressive data analyst Sean McElwee documented, party leaders attempted to intervene in multiple locations during the 2018 cycle to push out candidates who had sharp, left-leaning messages in favor of more wealthy, donor-connected, and moderate politicians. But polling compiled by McElwee’s group Data for Progress has found that Democratic voters are generally more progressive on issues like the $15 minimum wage and Medicare for all than the senators who represent them, while an oft-cited 2013 study found that Democratic politicians consistently overestimate the conservativism of their constituents.

In other words… once the euphoria over the Dems winning control of the House has died down, the progressive wing of the Party could well find its own party leadership is a key part of the problem that Trump will pose between now and 2020, rather than being a vanguard in providing an alternative to it.

How Radical?

With that looming Democratic internal power struggle in mind, yesterday’s results were a very mixed bag. Yes, the first two Muslims were elected to Congress, the first openly gay Democratic governor got elected in Colorado, and several victories were recorded by African-Americans, Native Americans, and by women – including Jennifer Wexton’s predictably easy victory in a wealthy Virginia suburban Congressional district. The party of Hillary Clinton had quite a lot to celebrate yesterday.

There were also a few less expected outcomes. Inexplicably, a ballot initiative to give former convicted felons the right to vote got passed in conservative Florida by a very wide margin, thereby empowering as many as 1.5 million prospective voters, come 2020. (Florida also approved ballot initiatives to ban offshore drilling, and indoor vaping.) On the other hand, many high profile progressive candidates lost, although valiantly. The three African – American gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Maryland and Georgia all lost, as did Beto O’Rourke, narrowly and heroically, to Ted Cruz in a high profile Senate contest in Texas. Surprisingly in the liberal Northwest, Washington state voted down a ballot initiative that would have put a price on carbon emissions.

Meaning: there wasn’t a coherent narrative where the young, radical wing of the Democratic Party triumphed across the board while the moderate, party machine politicians went down in flames. For example: Abigail Spanberger’s victory for the Dems in Virginia’s 7th Congressional district was very much a product of liberal, highly educated gentrifiers moving into the area. Kendra Horn’s upset win in the Oklahoma 5th was on the back of a campaign where she all but foreswore any political ideology whatsoever. In similar vein, Gretchen Whitmer’s victorious campaign for Governor in Michigan was based mainly on her promise to “fix the roads”. She also utilised a Jacinda Arden-ish slogan in her advertising of “Lets Get It Done”. Actions, not ideology ruled the day in many races.

To wildly generalise, the more radical candidates tended to actually prevail – rather than lose heroically – in those regions which were already relatively liberal strongholds. Even within those enclaves it would be a stretch to hail Antonio Delgado’s victory in New York 19th as a progressive triumph. While Delgado seems a good candidate who survived a smear campaign against his previous career as a rap musician, he had also been touted during the primaries by the NY Democratic Party machine for his ability to generate hefty corporate donations.

This is not to say that the midterms didn’t feature a lot of terrific Democratic candidates. Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum in Florida, Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath in Kentucky, Stacey Abrams in Georgia… will all be heard from again. You could make a case that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, self-defeating trade tariffs, un-Christian family separations and tax handouts for the rich narrowly carried the day for him in any number of contests. You could equally argue that Trump thereby did considerable longer-term damage to the Republican cause. (Paradoxically, CNN exit polling found that a third of voters claimed that Trump wasn’t a factor at all in how they voted.) Yes, in some respects, a polarised country has become further polarised.

Even so, right wing extremism had quite a bad night. Its support base shrank, though not as much as liberals had hoped. The picture defies easy summary. What you can say is that Trumpism has survived its most severe test to date, and Trump will be looking to see how he can continue to heighten America’s divisions all the way until 2020, especially once his likely challenger has been identified.

From today onwards, the Democrats have to ensure Trump doesn’t (a) paint them into a corner as obstructionists or (b) sucker them into legislative compromises for which he will claim all of the credit.

Footnote One: Despite all his talk about the nasty hostile media, Trump continues to be the de facto news editor of the media mainstream – in that he successfully dictates the news agenda. For example: a Media Matters study found that in the weeks before election day in the midterms, the New York Times and Washington Post ran 115 stories about the bogus security threat posed by the “caravan of migrants” with over 80 of those stories landing on page one. Even when they’re debunking him, the mainstream media is still functioning as a reliable megaphone for his messages.

Footnote Two. Can the Democrats win in rural America? Yesterday’s results would say “not yet” but they also offered an interesting example to the contrary. On a day when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren won their seats in their East Coast enclaves and nourished their presidential hopes… there was also a Midwest success story to consider. A few months ago I wrote a column touting Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar as a liberal Democratic presidential option who seems uniquely able to transcend the current US mood of polarisation and lure moderate/rural/suburban voters away from the Republicans. Yesterday, Klobuchar won her Minnesota seat in a 60/36 landslide. Look at the rural/suburban districts she won.

IMO, a Klobuchar/Beto O’Rourke presidential ticket would have a lot going for it. BTW, if you haven’t seen O’Rourke’s concession speech yesterday, you should. It’s about ten minutes long, but is riveting.

Conversely last night, the Houston Chronicle carried an interesting analysis on why O’Rourke lost in Texas.

Footnote Three: During the midterms campaign showed, polling showed that many white, Christian evangelical women are turning away from Trump. For this bloc of voters, abortion policy is no longer an over-riding factor. If you want to know how this alienation has occurred… the NYT stepped back this week and gave an articulate and intelligent Christian woman the room to engage, uninterrupted, in a discussion with her conservative father about why, for the first time in her life, she intended voting for the Democrats.

Footnote Four: While much was made during the midterms campaign (and subsequent analysis) of the current “strength” of the US economy… Bloomberg News ran a good column this week questioning that happy consensus. Their conclusion: indeed, the economy has been going just great under Trump if you’re a major stockmarket investor, but not quite so well for everyone else:

Excluding investment accounts, Americans’ collective wealth, despite the strong economy, has grown $4.7 billion a month slower under President Donald Trump than it did in the two years of Barack Obama’s administration before the 2016 election, according to data from the Federal Reserve.

Another sign that Americans’ fortunes aren’t improving as fast: The cash they have on hand — what is in their checking and savings accounts, as well as any money market funds or under their mattresses — is up just 7 percent since Trump was elected president, according to the most recent data from the Fed. That compares with the 13 percent gain during the two years before Trump’s election.

Yep, America has got wealthier since 2016 but unsurprisingly, that wealth has not been shared equally. Some 62% of the $14 trillion gain came from investments, and 84% of that stockmarket wealth is held by the top 10% of the richest households:

By comparison, during the last two years of the Obama administration, 69 percent of the increase in Americans’ net worth came outside of investment accounts…On top of that, Americans’ indebtedness has been growing faster under Trump, by about $43 billion more a quarter, than it did under Obama. That figure excludes the growth in the federal debt, which could rise by as much as $2 trillion from the tax cuts alone….

To be fair, Bloomberg News also found that employment and the value of household durable goods has risen more in the two years under Trump than in the last two years under Obama. Wages have risen faster as well, though some of that gain has been recently offset by an increase in inflation.

Party For One

At the end of the night, politicians still have to face the dark without the crowds, the flunkeys and the supposed reasons that motivate all of the effort. Here’s an upbeat new track by pop maestro Carly Rae Jepsen about breaking up, but still finding a familiar way of keeping it personal: