Published November 7, 2018
A few loose points on the midterms, if you’ll have them.
I think it’s worth breaking down the implications of the election into the institutions they’ll affect. At the national level, I suspect these elections will change the tone much more than the substance of what gets done. A Democratic House will mean Republicans can’t advance a legislative agenda, but what agenda were they going to advance if they held on to the House? Three or four more Republican senators will mean Republicans aren’t quite so captive to one or two mavericks there. But they’re still far short of 60 votes, and so are still basically just going to be confirming judges.
In fact, in a divided Congress governing a divided country, each house will tend to be drawn to what it can do on its own. A Democratic House can do little alone beyond oversight of the executive—so Democrats will be drawn to aggressive confrontations with Trump that may make their new members (many of whom are from only marginally liberal districts) uneasy. They will make Trump uneasy too, particularly because of a little-noticed move that House Republicans made in 2015 that will now come back to haunt them. In the latter days of the Obama administration, House Republicans changed the rules of the House to allow committee chairmen in 14 separate House committees to issue subpoenas in investigations of the executive branch without the approval of (or even consultation with) the ranking member of the other party on the committee. (Here’s a good backgrounder.) You can be sure that Democrats will make ample use of this new authority, and it will sting.
A Republican Senate, meanwhile, can do little on its own with its narrow majority beyond judicial nominations—so Republicans will be drawn to wield the Senate as though it were a simple majoritarian body, rather than letting its rules force them toward accommodations. Combined with the fact that not much will come out of the Democratic House that Republican senators will want to take up, this means there just isn’t likely to be much of a legislative agenda beyond essential spending votes.
There could be exceptions, of course, if the leaders of either house feel like they’ve got the maneuvering room to be clever. This may be possible in particular on spending measures, where funding riders could make a comeback in a divided Congress. Nancy Pelosi, for instance, could offer Trump a deal whereby he gets, say, $5 billion for his border wall in a spending bill that at the same time prohibits any funding from going to, say, family separation, changes to asylum policies, changes to birthright citizenship, and changes to DACA. The wall could barely get started before 2020 anyway, and the Democrats would basically win all the live immigration fights in such a deal, but it could still be hard for Trump to resist. She could even do it in the coming lame-duck session. And Republican leaders would (sort of) want it, because otherwise wall funding is going to be a constant nightmare in budget talks. There’s not much for Pelosi to lose in an arrangement like that except that her caucus and outside activists might hate the idea of dealing with Trump.
It’s easy to imagine similar scenarios in other areas, but it’s not easy to imagine that the political maneuvering room will actually be there. Bigger moves, like a real infrastructure bill, would probably end up dying between the House and Senate, if they get started at all. But we shall see.
Below the national level, meanwhile, the election was a little more clearly a good day for the Democrats. Aside from Florida, where basically everything broke for Republicans, the Democrats showed strength in some of the states that Republicans absolutely need if they’re going to keep losing the voters Trump drives away. Democrats won the Senate and governor races in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. That is a terrible sign for anyone who let themselves believe the Trump electoral strategy could endure. They also flipped seven Republican governorships (assuming they don’t also flip Georgia). And they flipped seven state-legislative chambers (or six plus taking control in the Connecticut Senate, which was previously tied), and had a decent but not spectacular night more generally in state and local races. These are not transformational numbers, but they are meaningful, and they suggest that we have probably seen the peak of a period of utter Republican dominance at the state level.
Looking over that period, you’d have to acknowledge that it achieved relatively little that is likely to last. Unlike a period of (lesser) Republican dominance in the 1990s, which resulted in very significant innovations in welfare and education policy, among other areas, this period of dominance has not really transformed the landscape. In some areas ripe for innovation (like the protection of religious liberty, health care, and higher education) progress for conservative ideas has been halting and modest. We can hope that some of what Scott Walker achieved on public-sector union reforms will last. And we can hope that conservative governors and legislators (of whom there are still quite a lot) will seize more opportunities in the years ahead. But not as much has been achieved or even attempted as an observer of the sheer scale of Republican dominance over this decade might have hoped.
Considering that fact, it is hard to avoid noting that much the same is likely to be true at the national level. In Washington, too, a period of significant Republican dominance is ebbing some now without having achieved much that is likely to endure. Judges are the great exception, and there real progress is without question being made. A tax bill was enacted, but otherwise there haven’t been major legislative accomplishments, and the next two years aren’t likely to bring them either. And while conservatives are in the habit of saying that a lot of deregulation is going on, we tend to be careless about how we use that term. Some significant Obama-era rules have been undone (though many haven’t), but there have been practically no structural reforms to the way the federal government regulates, and therefore no actual rolling back of the regulatory state that will last into a Democratic presidency.
This obviously has a lot to do with President Trump’s own particular deficiencies and disabilities, which are legion and atrocious. But it is also a function of a broader sense of drift that isn’t Trump’s doing, or at least not primarily.
There are still opportunities for meaningful action that could endure, of course. But it seems likely that even Republicans with a lot of patience for the president will look back on the Trump era from, say, a year or two into the next Democratic presidency and (like Democrats looking back on the Obama era now) will wonder what really got done and whether the cost was worth it.
— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.