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Losing the House May Help Trump More Than It Hurts Him

Losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats in Tuesday’s midterm election will likely help President Trump win reelection in 2020.

First, assigning blame to one party for policy inactivity and policy failure is easier with united government than with divided government. Democratic control of the House provides cover for Trump for as to why additional items in his agenda were not enacted in the two years running up to the next presidential election. Indeed, Trump could again focus on proposals for greater infrastructure spending, lower Medicare drug prices, and other populist economic policies more generally. In doing so he would place Democrats in a hard spot: If they simply refuse to move, Trump draws attention to Democratic intransigence as the explanation for his agenda’s lack of success. If the Democrats do not resist, Trump actually gains additional policy successes—ones that a GOP-controlled House likely would not have enacted.

The temptation for House Democrats to deny Trump any policy success over the next two years will be very great. But this is a double-edged sword for the Democrats, with the ironic possibility that they will provide Trump the cover that a Republican House could not. Any President, not simply Trump, has a singular bully pulpit Congress cannot match. I would not bet against Trump in a finger-pointing context of who’s to blame for policy gridlock.

Secondly, however, the temptation is great for the Democrats to overplay their hand, both politically and ideologically.

First, the latter. While both Trump and the Democrats have their true believers, for the wide swath of the middle it’s a matter of which side repulses fewer voters. In his matchup against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Clinton repulsed enough voters in enough electorally pivotal states to hand the election to Trump. To be sure, Clinton labored under a unique set of electoral disabilities, both personal and political. But the Democrats aren’t reading the tea leaves correctly if they think the answer to Clinton’s disabilities is to lurch leftward. While this plays to true believers on Democratic left, the outcome is to scare more centrist voters to support Trump, even if they do so while holding their noses. And even when ideological polarization increases, elections are still decided by median or pivotal voters, even if there are relatively fewer than previously.

The temptation for House Democrats to overplay their new control over formal powers of the House will be huge as well. While many Democratic House candidates played it cool and focused on bread and butter issues in their district-level campaigns, a wide swath of the Democratic base and the liberal commentariat is in thrall to Trump Derangement Syndrome. The pressure on House Democrats to use the formal powers of the House to “get” Trump, whether by impeachment or merely the subpoena power, will be immense. But, again, the trick is appease the rabid supporter without putting off the median voter. As the recent Senate controversy over Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court suggests, balancing the two is difficult. Democratic overplay likely contributed to losing two additional Senate seats.

This can happen in a contest between Trump and House Democrats as well. Democrats need to keep in mind that Congress normally has a job approval rating about half that of the President. It’s far from clear that if the House goes after Trump that Trump will pay the electoral cost. The Democrats could end up making Trump look good. The irony is that the Democratic takeover of the House increases the odds of Trump’s reelection in 2020.

Reader Discussion

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on November 07, 2018 at 11:26:48 am

The irony is that the Democratic takeover of the House increases the odds of Trump’s reelection in 2020.

Agreed.

Trump has never been popular, his first election was a narrow fluke—resulting in part from low turnout by black and Hispanic voters—and the odds of that same fluke repeating were always small. Trump’s repulsive behavior has only made those odds lower, as evidenced by the remarkably high voter turnout at the midterms. Two years from now, more Hispanics will be of voting age, more people will have graduated from college, and more old white guys will have died. In the absence of better voter suppression, the math gets daunting. And with Democrats controlling more governorships and state legislatures, voter suppression gets harder. Even Kansas couldn’t stomach Kobach, and Georgia remains a jump ball.

That said, Trump’s sole play is opposition. Giving him more opposition will give him more to play with. This may shift his odds of re-election from very low to merely low.

Trump could again focus on proposals for greater infrastructure spending, lower Medicare drug prices, and other populist economic policies more generally. In doing so he would place Democrats in a hard spot: If they simply refuse to move, Trump draws attention to Democratic intransigence as the explanation for his agenda’s lack of success. If the Democrats do not resist, Trump actually gains additional policy successes—ones that a GOP-controlled House likely would not have enacted.

The temptation for House Democrats to deny Trump any policy success over the next two years will be very great. But this is a double-edged sword for the Democrats, with the ironic possibility that they will provide Trump the cover that a Republican House could not. Any President, not simply Trump, has a singular bully pulpit Congress cannot match. I would not bet against Trump in a finger-pointing context of who’s to blame for policy gridlock.

Again, agreed—kinda. This was the Republicans strategy against Obama. When Democrats lost control of Congress at the 2010 midterms, Republicans stonewalled all further action—with the result that Obama won re-election.

That said, a see an asymmetry here. Republican stonewalling fits within a Republican libertarian narrative that government action = bad, and they point to Obamacare as Exhibit A. Since then, the Republican Congress has been fairly inactive even with full control of all the levers of government; they couldn’t even achieve their signature goal of repealing Obamacare. In contrast, inaction is not part of the Democrat brand. When bills get passed for government action, Democrats get to claim victory over the do-nothing Republicans.

So imagine that Trump gives a fiery speech about the need for infrastructure spending to create jobs, and the need to control drug prices. The Democratic House says, “Damn right—and here’s a bill to do precisely that!” Now the Republican Senate is stuck. They’ll have to choose between their low-spending, deregulatory ways—even in the face of populist attacks from their president—or capitulate, thereby undercutting their libertarian credentials and handing the Democratic House a victory. In the next election, Republicans will try to claim credit, but their Democratic opponents will point out that if Republicans had really wanted to accomplish those objectives, they would have done so when they controlled all the levers of power. Obviously, the change that enabled the legislation to pass was the rise of the Democrats, which finally broke the back of the Republican libertarian ideologues.

Was the midterm a referendum on Trump? Sure. Did Democrats campaign on how bad Trump was? Not so much; mostly they ran on the need to protect people with re-existing conditions. Simply by focusing on substantive policy, they were able to rebuke Trump. Trump has high salience and low approval without any help from Democrats. The Democrats merely had to avoid getting in the way. And I expect the same dynamics to apply in the next election, too.

Secondly, however, the temptation is great for the Democrats to overplay their hand, both politically and ideologically.

Again, agreed. But as Rogers observes, you "overplay your hand: when you repulse more voters than the other side. And in this matter, I suspect Rogers underestimates Trump and the Republican message machine.

First, Democrats would have real cause for concern that their efforts might be turned against them—if facts mattered. But they don’t. Recall, Republicans were furious that Democrats were running a child sex operation out of the basement of a pizza parlor. They shoot up synagogues because Jews are financing a caravan of Middle Eastern terrorists marching on our southern border. They mail pipebombs to the “enemies of the state” as designated by Trump. In short, fact don’t drive the message. The message is already written, and the messengers sprinkle facts on top if they have them—and substitute "alternative facts" if they don’t. Honestly, what could Democrats do that could possibly make the Trump base more motivated than they already are? Nothing; Trump’s base is constantly dialed to 11.

So if facts don’t matter, then the only remaining variable is messaging: Will the media (and, thus, the public) find Democratic behavior so outrageous—and therefore newsworthy—that they’d reallocate attention that they’d otherwise devote to Trump? I’m not seeing it. Ok, sure, focusing on Democratic outrages will seem novel after years of focusing on Trump’s outrages. But in the final analysis, Pelosi just isn’t as telegenic a figure as Trump. The media will continue to focus on Trump—for both the good and bad that he does—because that’s what will drive ratings.

If Trump could be disciplined about his message, he could turn this fact to advantage. But the opposite is true, so the opposite is true. When Trump and Polosi each do something good, the lead story will be about Trump. When Trump and Pelosi each do something outrageous, the lead story will be about Trump—because the lead story is always about Trump. And because the public will remember only the outrageous stuff, they'll remember Trump and how much they disapprove of him. The only people who will focus on Democratic outrages will be the people who are perpetually outraged about Democrats. How much difference will that make?

It scarcely matters who the Democrats run in 2020; the election will be a referendum on Trump. As we saw in this election, Trump will say the outrageous things that fire up his base—and that repulse everyone else. Because that’s all he knows how to do. He’s a one-trick pony with no capacity to learn or take direction. The election will make for stupendous ratings—and electoral disaster.

And with the benefit of Trump’s anti-coattails, Democrats will win more state houses and state legislatures than ever, just in time for redistricting.

Gabe, you might want to start buying champagne futures now.

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nobody.really
on November 07, 2018 at 11:40:47 am

When have the Dems ever overplayed their hand? (Hint: when was the last time they had a hand?)

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CulperJr
on November 07, 2018 at 12:39:59 pm

"...And with the benefit of Trump’s anti-coattails, Democrats will win more..."

Every Dem senator who voted against Kavanaugh lost last night. The one Dem senator who voted FOR him...won. Those are some kinda 'anti-coattails.'

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Hektor
on November 07, 2018 at 13:40:44 pm

I believe it probable that Trump will not run again in 2020. Like a boxer who retires immediately after winning the title having never lost a match, Trump will not want to risk going out as a loser. And why should he? The unprecedented abuse he takes each and every day isn't worth it. Trump will always have been the 45th President of the US, and while 2 terms is regarded as the sine qua non by career politicians, Trump is not a career politician.

The suggestion floated by nobody.really that the Dems will cooperate with Trump on anything, even a drug price bill, is ludicrous (as is his/her quaint attachment to "infrastructure spending," but no doubt only so long as it doesn't provide too much work for burly men; and here's the NYT's evaluation of the last big federal infrastructure boondoggle: But the stimulus ultimately failed to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery. Money was spread far and wide rather than dedicated to programs with the most bang for the buck. “Shovel-ready” projects, those that would put people to work right away, took too long to break ground. Investments in worthwhile long-term projects, on the other hand, were often rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, and the resulting shoddy outcomes tarnished the projects’ image. When you can't even count on the apparatchiks at the NYT. . . . Also--ask me about the Big Dig (because I don't have grandchildren) ). Trump is Hitler, remember. Would it be ethical to do business with Hitler? Hitler built infrastructure, you know, and a fat lot of good that did for the Nuremburg defendants.

The notion that economic performance is relevant to our current politics has been decisively refuted. This is a nation where the elements of the Democratic Party currently in the ascendant would rather turn us into a Venezuela if it meant they got to keep bashing the fashes and jailing people for "hate speech." The new Democrats are like the Roman legions remarked by Calgacus: they make an economic desert and call it social justice. They are locked into a dogma that holds that every dollar spent by the government creates 10 new sustainable jobs whereas each dollar spent by a private actor (unless, you know, he donates it to Beto) shaves 10 years off the life of The Planet. They concern themselves exclusively with redistribution while ignoring--even disparaging--that before something can be redistributed there must be a something to redistribute (see, e.g., Venezuela; or the Soviet Union; take your pick).

So no, even though the next 2 years will be All Resistance All The Time by the CDC and their media organs (hey, what do you think are the chances that the Democrats will apply any anti-Citizens United legislation to NYT and WaPo "[Any Republican] is Hitler" op-eds within 60 days of an election, even though they are corporations?
Oh I forgot, they are "The Press" which is totally different! But Fox New isn't, amirite?), that won't be enough to secure with sufficient certainty a re-election, and so Trump will opt out, is my bet.

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QET
on November 07, 2018 at 13:45:30 pm

"Trump has never been popular"

He's at 51% according to some polls, upper 40s according to others. About Obama-level popularity. Are you suggesting that Obama was not a "popular" president?

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Michael Towns
on November 07, 2018 at 14:26:35 pm

I believe it probable that Trump will not run again in 2020. Like a boxer who retires immediately after winning the title having never lost a match, Trump will not want to risk going out as a loser.

I think Trump might quit when he discovers he can't avoid the subpoena for his tax returns.

The suggestion floated by nobody.really that the Dems will cooperate with Trump on anything, even a drug price bill, is ludicrous (as is his/her quaint attachment to “infrastructure spending,”..)....

When you can’t even count on the apparatchiks at the NYT...

Perhaps. But one apparatchik reports that "the change on Capitol Hill is likely to make a difference on some spending priorities....

The momentum on health care has shifted toward shoring up and improving the Affordable Care Act and reining in prescription drug costs, an issue that has caught President Trump’s attention as well....

Mr. Trump has always been enthusiastic about building on a grand scale, and in many ways, the Democrats are more willing partners than Republicans, who have consistently objected to the kind of spending required. Democrats have put together a trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal aimed at everything from broadband to waterways.

But financing remains a problem. Even if the president and Democrats were willing to make a deal, Senate Republicans would almost certainly object to any plan large enough to make it worth the Democrats’ while, said Rick Lazio, a former Republican congressman.... 'With the economy slowing and deficits climbing,” he said, “I don’t just see Republicans going for a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill.'...

[But w]ith the effects of the stimulus fading, Mr. Trump has stepped up complaints that the Federal Reserve’s plan to raise interest rates will slow the economy. 'If somebody offers him the opportunity to offset that with a spending bill, he would sign it, with no regard for the deficit,' said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities...."

[H]ere’s the NYT’s evaluation of the last big federal infrastructure boondoggle: But the stimulus ultimately failed to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery....

Yeah, people disagree about the effectiveness of infrastructure spending as a stimulus. But we're discussing the political popularity of infrastructure spending, not its effectiveness, so I don't see your point.

[T]he next 2 years will be All Resistance All The Time by the CDC and their media organs....

The Center for Disease Control has "media organs"?

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nobody.really
on November 07, 2018 at 16:56:47 pm

nobody:

"So if facts don’t matter, then the only remaining variable is messaging: "

Apparently they don't as you continually cite all manner of non-existent "repulsive" behavior by The Trumpster and the ever present "voter suppression canard and, of course, all those "subsstantive policy issues" that the Democrats focused on. Now, REALLY (Oops, used your last name again)!!! I take those *substantive* issues to be 1) Trump as Hitler, 2) Trump as racist, 3) Trump as misogynist, 4) Trump as "dictator, 5) Trump as "destroyer of worlds.

OMG, Edith! You sound quite similar to the Editorialists at National review.
Hey, are you secretly Jonah Goldberg, David French or Frum?

Just the facts, Mam, just the facts no matter what orifice they emanate from!

As for champagne - overpriced, lacking structure and complexity and only Progressives require "Bubbles" to feel contentment. - Ha!

On a serious note. Rogers thesis, advanced by others has truth in it. I suspect that if the Democrats play "Inspector Clousseau" with the mechansims of the House, they may very well engender a backlash not unlike that observed from the Kavanaugh debacle.

BTW: In a sense, however, you may be correct re: substantive policy issues. However, it is not so much the policies IMPLEMENTED but RATHER the ones that were not implemented. Much of The Trumpsters policy objectives were killed in the House by none other than that "born again" RINO Paul Ryan. The Trumpster is correct that Paul ryan may have cost the GOP control of the House. Good riddance to the now former Speaker of the House.

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gabe
on November 07, 2018 at 17:09:29 pm

Oh and here is what I expect will be only the first in a soon to be never ending series of "investigations into that dirty rotten Hitlerite Donald J Trump:

https://hotair.com/archives/2018/11/07/swalwell-youd-better-believe-well-see-trumps-tax-returns/

My gawd, Edith! Can you not get over the fact that YOU LOST.

I am quite certain that the American people would prefer that the Democrats continue on this path of obstruction, slander, - after all, " Trump delenda est" is the rallying cry of the Democrats.

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gabe
on November 07, 2018 at 17:21:35 pm

Every Dem senator who voted against Kavanaugh lost last night.

Democratic Senators who voted no on Kavenaugh included Tammy Baldwin, Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown. Maria Cantwell, Benjamin Cardin, Thomas Carper, Bob Casey, Chris Coons, Catherine Cortez Masto, Joe Donnelly, Tammy Duckworth, Richard J. Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand,
Kamala Harris, Maggie Hassan, Martin Heinrich, Heidi Heitkamp, Mazie K. Hirono, Doug Jones. Tim Kaine, Angus King (Democrat-ish), Amy Klobuchar, Patrick J. Leahy, Edward J. Markey, Claire McCaskill. Robert Menendez, Jeff Merkley, Christopher S. Murphy, Patty Murray, Bill Nelson, Gary Peters, Jack Reed, Bernie Sanders (Democrat-ish), Brian Schatz, Chuck Schumer, Jeanne Shaheen,, Tina Smith, Debbie Stabenow, Jon Tester, Tom Udall, Chris Van Hollen, Mark Warner, Elizabeth Warren, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Ron Wyden. In addition, Republican Lisa Murkowski stated that she would have voted no, but refrained to offset the vote of another senator who would have voted yes, but was absent.

Admittedly, not all election results are in, but I'm skeptical that every Democratic Senator who voted against Kavanaugh lost last night. Most weren't even on the ballot. And plenty who were still won reelection.

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nobody.really
on November 07, 2018 at 18:22:56 pm

Do you mean "mead" organs? - Dilly! Dilly!

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gabe
on November 08, 2018 at 13:47:30 pm

As a first-order estimate of likely outcome of the 2020 presidential race, FiveThirtyEight calculates total Democratic/Republican votes cast in each state for House members. Verdict: The pattern looks a lot like the 2012 election--Democrats win.

But this was a "Blue Wave" year, so they re-ran the analysis, shaving down the Democratic turn-out by six points to make the results more "typical." Verdict: same.

Elections are a matter of 1) motivating people to become voters, and 2) persuading voter to vote for you. Trump won in 2016 by motivating previously unmotivated while male conservatives to vote. But how much more juice can he squeeze out of that demographic? True, it would be similarly foolish for Democrats to count on a higher turn-out among white women--but it's entirely reasonable to expect to persuade these voters to shift their votes away from Trump and his apologists. And it's always been clear that there was plenty of juice to squeeze out of the Hispanic demographic. I expect election returns will reveal that Trump has had unprecedented success in prompting Hispanics to vote--much to the detriment of the GOP.

Theoretically Trump could boost his numbers by boosting immigration from white male conservatives. The NYT has a thought-provoking article about the incels of Eastern Germany. But this immigration strategy faces a number of problems. It would conflict with Trump's general anti-immigration posture, and potentially piss off people who don't want to face more competition for jobs (or women). It would seem racist on its face. And there's no evidence that these German incels have special qualities that might make them a logical target for special visa status. To the contrary, their most noteworthy feature is their devotion to staying in their hometowns even as the women leave for greener pastures in Western Germany. Not obvious candidates for emigration.

So if you can't run up your score, your best hope for victory lies in running down your opponent's score. Ergo I expect ever more voter suppression--not because Republicans are evil, but because they're desperate. They're simply going to run out of viable alternative strategies for winning a Presidential race. Plenty of Republican strategists will recoil at this idea--and thus will sit out the presidential race, leaving the field to Republican strategist who have reconciled themselves to this dynamic.

So, Trump has utterly screwed the conservative cause, heh? Maybe not.

Trump has inspired the rise of bold, progressive Democrats. And during the midterms, plenty of those Democrats ... lost. Meanwhile, the moderate Democrats seemed to fare well. So how 'bout this for a bank shot: In 2020, the Democrats run ... Mike Bloomberg? Or Mitt Romney? Or his clone, MA governor Charlie Baker? Each of these men have worn the Republican label; Romney and Baker still do. But they were/are "Republicans" in the sense of "policy wonks who consider market consequences of public policy, but to the left of Paul Ryan." They're not Republicans in the sense of "raging vehicle for the resentments of white men without college educations." Which is to say, they're not contemporary Republicans. In all but name, they're moderate Democrats.

Admittedly, Democrats do not lack for tribalism, so a history of wearing the "Republican" label will be an impediment. But Trump has been so successful in normalizing far right views, he may have rendered conventional Republican views more acceptable to Democrats. Conservatives may yet win the game of Good Cop/Bad Cop.

I'm not betting on this outcome. But if this actually occurred--Trumpism legitimates conservatism in the eyes of Democrats--I'd have to finally concede that Trump really is the Master of the Deal.

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nobody.really
on November 10, 2018 at 12:04:17 pm

Trump will probably enjoy himself, he might even get the wilder species of liberal, of which their are many, I can close my eyes now and giggle at the chagrin our revolutionaries.

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johnt

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