Just as President Obama was unable to pass any significant legislation after Republicans won control of the House in 2010, Trump’s ability to enact important measures is over. Efforts to repeal Obamacare will be impossible as long as Democrats control the House. Similarly, Trump will be unable to push through further tax cuts or weaken the laws that regulate pollution, finance, health and safety, and other areas. Trump however, again just like Obama, retains the presidency’s vast regulatory authority.
On November 6 Americans voted in the 2018 midterm elections. This election, midway between presidential elections, decided the membership of the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and a majority of state governorships and legislatures. Usually turnout for midterms is far below that in presidential years, but this time turnout was the highest in at least seventy years. In addition, contributions to campaigns were almost as high as in the 2016 presidential election, reflecting Democrats’ ability to draw upon massive support from ordinary citizens making small donations that exceeded what Republicans received from wealthy large donors.
The intense interest reflected voters’ belief that this election was a referendum on Trump’s presidency and on the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump’s style and policies. What was the public’s verdict? Overall, this election was a significant victory for the Democrats. They captured the House of Representatives, gaining at least 35 seats. This is a larger than usual gain for the party out of power in midterm elections, and especially impressive given the extent to which district lines have been gerrymandered, i.e. drawn to concentrate Democrats in a few districts to allow Republicans to capture far more seats than their total would deserve. The set of Senate seats up for election this year were in heavily Republican, rural states, so the Democrats’ loss of only one or two seats was unexpectedly small and bodes well for Democrats capturing the Senate in 2020.
Overall, this election points to a major realignment of both parties’ bases of support. The Republicans have become a party with overwhelming support in rural, heavily white areas, and remains the party of evangelical Christians and the old. Democrats dominate in cities and among non-white voters and the young. The major switch has been of well-educated and wealthy women, and to a lesser extent of men, from the Republican to the Democratic Party. Before this election, Democrats represented thirteen of the twenty wealthiest Congressional districts; now Democrats represent all twenty. There were 13 wealthy districts that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hilary Clinton in 2016. Those thirteen all elected Republican Representatives in 2016. This year Democrats won ten of those districts. Regionally, the Democrats made impressive gains in the southwest, picking up Senate seats as well as local offices in Nevada and Arizona, and almost winning the Texas Senate seat held by Ted Cruz. Republicans still dominate the South, and two of their candidates who ran overtly racist campaigns for governor—Brian Kemp in Georgia and Ron DeSantis in Florida—are leading and appear likely to defeat their African American Democratic opponents. The Midwest, the region that gave Trump the electoral votes needed to become president, appears split. Democrats made some gains but it remains unclear if that will be enough to turn those states away from Trump in 2020.
Elections are more than gauges of public opinion. They determine who holds offices that pass laws, hold hearings, and administer agencies. Democratic victories at the state level will make possible progressive legislation in those states and allow governors and legislatures to develop new systems of health care financing, environmental protection and green energy, and reform criminal justice. For the nation as a whole, the key change is the Democratic victory in the House. How will Democratic control of the House of Representatives matter over the next two years?
The main influence the Democratic majority in the House will have is in their ability to block further initiatives by Trump and the Republicans. Just as President Obama was unable to pass any significant legislation after Republicans won control of the House in 2010, Trump’s ability to enact important measures is over. Efforts to repeal Obamacare will be impossible as long as Democrats control the House. Similarly, Trump will be unable to push through further tax cuts or weaken the laws that regulate pollution, finance, health and safety, and other areas.
Trump however, again just like Obama, retains the presidency’s vast regulatory authority. As Obama did, he can promulgate “executive orders” that block Federal officials from enforcing laws, or that attempt to redefine the meaning of laws and regulations. Those who oppose Trump’s initiatives will sue in Federal courts, arguing that the executive orders go beyond the legal authority of a president or directly contradict legislation. Such suits limited and delayed many of President Obama’s orders.
Democrats who bring such cases are likely to be less successful against Trump than those who sued Obama. The Federal courts increasingly are dominated by rightwing judges appointed by Trump, and by the Bushes and Reagan in earlier decades. Indeed, the Republicans’ slightly enlarged majority in the Senate will allow them to continue their aggressive and successful efforts to fill district and appeals courts and the Supreme Court with conservative appointees who are hostile to Federal regulation of business and to efforts to ensure equal rights for minorities and women.
Presidents have a great deal of leeway in foreign affairs and Trump like his predecessors makes use of that freedom for maneuver. He has cancelled trade agreements and launched trade wars. So far, his efforts in trade have yielded tiny results. The new agreements with South Korea and with Mexico and Canada are almost identical to the old treaties. The amount of pressure he would need to apply to have any chance of winning concessions from China or the EU will impose heavy costs on key groups of supporters whose enthusiasm he will need to win reelection. Thus, we can expect that Trump will talk loudly but carry a small stick in his trade disputes. Trump, so far, has been more restrained than most US presidents in sending troop abroad. His closest foreign policy advisors are advocates for war with Iran, and past presidents in weak political positions have responded by launching wars, so the danger of armed attacks on Iran remains pressing.
Wars’ effects on elections depend largely on timing. At first, wars boost presidents’ popularity. It is only later, when the war remains unwon and casualties mount that the American public turns against wars and the presidents who began them. George W. Bush started his war in Iraq close enough to the 2004 election that it helped him win a second term. Certainly Trump and his advisors lack any moral scruples about using a war and sacrificing lives to win the next election. The next two years are likely to be calmer within the US but America might be more dangerous in the world.