I was in the US the week of the mid-term elections and it was interesting to watch the campaigning, listen to radio and TV ads, and speak to people about their feelings.
The most noticeable thing was the extreme polarization of US political debate. It was reminiscent of the Brexit debate in Britain – a country torn asunder. Of course, in the US the object of that polarization is the Trump presidency.
Those with a leftward bent cannot come to terms with Donald Trump in the White House. It seems to occupy every fibre of their visceral selves. People I have known for years who have always had reasonable positions are infuriated – and all the more so because of their powerlessness.
Others are more sanguine: “I really don’t like him – but look at the economy, the stock market and that someone is finally doing something about China” is their mantra. A friend of mine related a recent phone call he had had with a lifelong friend. He was making the same points about the economy, etc when his friend asked “You didn’t vote for him did you?” He responded only in the negative: “I didn’t vote for Hillary.” His friend put the phone down and has not spoken to him since – even though this was Massachusetts and any Democrat candidate was going to sweep that state anyway.
This is the politics of extreme tribalism which was launched by Newt Gingrich in the 90s and has found its apogee in Donald Trump (at least one can but hope that this is, indeed, the pinnacle and that there is no further to go).
One of the pundits on the radio said that when people vote for the House seats, they tend to focus on local issues. When they vote for Senate seats they tend to focus on national issues. And so it seemed to be during the campaigning.
What of the results? The much heralded Blue Wave (some were even speaking of a blue tsunami) failed to materialize. As the New York Times put it: “Over all, 2018’s shift to the left was smaller than the one in 2006, the last time the Democrats flipped the House. And it was half the size of the most recent Republican wave in 2010 when districts shifted more than 19 points to the right.” A blue ripple is all we got.
Democrats are, once again, incredulous. Buried in their own angst, they continue to fail to understand the drivers of the Trump phenomenon (9 out of the 11 Senators that Trump campaigned for directly were elected). Neither have they yet developed a coherent alternative political platform that can shift the country to vote for them. Mere outrage is not an effective political strategy.
What do the results mean for the next two years in US politics and for Trump’s chances of re-election?
Nobody is yet quite sure how the Democrats will handle their newly found House majority. They may take the route of obstructionism – much like the Republicans did in response to the election of President Obama.
It is not clear whether such an approach will serve them well. It opens the door to politics by populist rhetoric at which Trump will likely beat them hands down. And the reinstatement of Nancy Pelosi, a divisive figure in the Hillary Clinton mould, as House speaker will not much help their cause when it gets to mobilizing public support.
They may even try to mount investigations and initiate impeachment proceedings in the hope of precipitating a Watergate 2.0. Of course, impeachment will never get through a Republican-controlled Senate. And all the evidence suggests that the population is not enamoured by the idea of impeaching a legitimately elected President (there was very little public support for the Clinton impeachment).
Yet the idea of collaboration with the President in the hope of chalking up some political wins will stick in most Democrats’ throats. They may simply find it impossible to bring themselves to do it.
And the Republicans have increased their Senate majority, which means that confirmation of key appointments will now be smoother – which is why there was horror at the news that 85 year old liberal Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was briefly admitted to hospital with a broken rib following a fall.
Do the mid-terms tell us anything about Trump’s chances of re-election? Hard to tell. Mid-terms are not necessarily good barometers for the next presidential election. However, what is clear is that the Republicans under Trump did better than expected and better than the performance of the President’s party in most other mid-terms.
What these elections certainly say is that the Democrats still have much work to do if they are to stand a fighting chance of taking the White House in 2020. They will need a platform and a programme that goes beyond “We hate Donald Trump.” Currently there is no sign of what such a programme would look like.
They will also need an outstanding candidate that they do not themselves destroy through a vicious primary selection process. These elections did not throw up many candidates who might fit the bill.
The one everyone is talking about is Beto O’Rourke who managed to come close to toppling Ted Cruz in blood-red Texas. He seems to have the charisma, popular appeal and ability to energise. What he lacks is a political track record – but that didn’t hold Trump back. There is also talk that what is needed is stardust. Names like Oprah Winfrey are being bandied about.
It’s a shame that the politics in the world’s most important country has come to this. That it is felt that all that might matter in winning the White House is a touch of Hollywood glamour.
Oh – and one more thing. Voters in bright blue, liberal and progressive Washington State voted down a proposal to implement a carbon tax. Make of that what you will.