Six months out from the first crucial midterm elections of this presidency, both political parties are divided and floundering for coherent messages, leaving the national stage to the reality-TV episodes of a White House occupied by Donald Trump, who’s on not one single ballot.
Midterm elections, especially the first of any president, are always initial verdicts on the Oval Office occupant. And with few exceptions (George W. Bush in the uncertain aftermath of 9/11), those voter verdicts are negative. In 16 of the 18 postwar midterm elections, the president’s party has lost House seats.
By history’s patterns and, until recently, preference polling, Democrats should be able to retake the 23 House seats necessary to end GOP domination of Congress. That would stymie Trump’s agenda and set up a rancorous two-year run-up to 2020, including embarrassing committee investigations, even greater obstruction and possibly impeachment proceedings.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems confident of regaining the giant ceremonial gavel. “We will win,” she says. “I will run for speaker. I feel confident about it. And my members do, too.”
But wait! There’s more.
In our system of government both parties are supposed to be checks on the other, competing through innovations, legislative accomplishments, new ideas and articulate leaders. Right now, not only is neither party doing that, each one is riven with ideological fractures, preventing cohesive political progress.
Despite joyful hour-by-hour media coverage of the mudslinging fracas and dueling photo-ops, this isn’t mere political entertainment. Without two vibrant parties presenting voters with fresh choices, our democracy wallows into stagnant gridlock, fueling frustrations, divisions and growing doubts about the ability of Washington to function, let alone succeed. Recall, that was the precise goal of all that alleged Russian meddling.
Both parties are at fault. Take Democrats, please. Thirty years San Francisco voters have sent Nancy Pelosi to Capitol Hill, where she became the first female speaker. An assiduous fundraiser, Pelosi runs her House caucus with a tight fist and two aged aides. She’s 78 herself and in several recent public remarks clearly lost her train of thought.
So much so that she handed GOP campaigns a gilded gift the other day by promising that her Democrats would raise taxes. The House alone can’t do that, of course, especially with a GOP president who recently signed tax cuts. But come fall, watch for that clip on your TV screen over and over and over. And over.
Pelosi sits atop simmering discontent in her caucus as ambitious younger members angle for more progressive stands, more individual influence and a greater shot at leadership positions. Despite presiding over four straight losing House elections, she fended off a challenger in 2016’s leadership election. She might not this time, especially as impatient new members arrive lacking respect for traditional seniority rules.
Even a recently-arrived Martian knows that Pelosi’s party hates Trump, everything he does and everything he stands for, when you can discern what that is. Beyond Trump and new taxes, what else do Democrats propose as a winning midterm message? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
In a sign of today’s hyper-partisan times, some concerned progressives are organizing focus groups and polling to detect, not new policy points, but the most potent attack lines against those deplorable congressional Republicans. About time, because recent public polling shows that last fall’s double-digit Democrat lead on the generic which-party-would-you-support-for-Congress ballot has shrunk to one or two points.
Same with the voter enthusiasm gap where anti-Trump sentiment fueled a 12-point Democrat lead over Republicans in February. Now, it’s six. This has yet to curb bountiful media talk about a November blue wave, however.
Historically low, Trump’s job approval has climbed out of the thirties to the mid-forties. He’s still underwater but benefiting from a loyal base, a growing economy, low unemployment, tax cuts, booming stock markets and apparently more people becoming accustomed to, if not attracted by, his outrageous comments. His high-wire foreign policy moves on North Korea and Iran have not hurt yet.
Senate Republicans are defending only eight seats to Democrats’ 26. They have but a one-seat majority often stalled by arcane supermajority rules and obstruction tactics. Democrats, for instance, have forced 30 hours of confirmation debate per Trump nominee.
House Republicans often stall themselves with ideological rifts and, frankly, puzzlement over an erratic Republican president who isn’t really a Republican. With his tweets and seemingly off-the-cuff remarks, Trump effectively controls Washington’s media agenda, which is great for a presidential ego. But it redirects coverage back to the ominous special counsel’s corruption investigation. And it drowns out much of the good economic news and tax-cut drumbeat that could allay anticipated midterm damages.
Also threatening is the exodus of more than 40 incumbent Republican members, opening seats for potential Democratic gains. Among those leaving is Speaker Paul Ryan. After 10 terms, he’s retiring — at age 48 — another revealing indication of the personal toll our contemporary federal politics takes.
Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.