I don’t see it as everyone does. To me the headline is that for the first time since the election of the most polarizing president in modern memory, the American people yielded a national verdict on his first two years of his governance. And it was not a sweeping rebuke.
A record 114 million Americans went to the polls and did what they tend to do in normal presidencies. Since World War II, the average loss for the president’s party in a midterm is 30 House seats. Mr. Trump’s party appears to have lost 35. (Barack Obama’s Democrats lost 63 in 2010.) This wasn’t the registering of a national rejection, more like business as usual.
For an outlandish president, business as usual is a bit of a boost.
Democrats threw everything they had into the battle—money, organization, passion. They got more votes than Republicans, but the election was also a test of what a friend calls the Democrats’ Death Star—the unprecedented mobilizing of the entire culture industry on their behalf. The “go vote” messaging was a tremendous effort, from the commanding heights of the culture, to make voting cool to Democratic-leaning groups, to make it a sign of existential goodness. And it did goose millennial turnout, but not enough to save Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum in Florida, Richard Cordray in Ohio, Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia.
Barack Obama took to the stump to no apparent effect. Oprah dazzled but couldn’t pull Ms. Abrams over the line. Taylor Swift informed her 112 million Instagram followers that Marsha Blackburn was the enemy. Everyone cheered. Mrs. Blackburn won by 11.
Showbiz ain’t what it used to be. America isn’t as simple as it seems.
What now? What will the Democrats do with the House?
We saw the mood of the moment in the Jacksonian melee of Wednesday’s news conference. The president was conciliatory until the mood passed. He’d “like to see bipartisanship,” but if Democrats come at him with new investigations, he will take a “warlike posture.”
The Democrats will launch new probes, in part because they can’t help themselves. It’s in their DNA, and they’re all jacked up on Watergate retrospectives in which the heroic congressman finds the searing truth and lectures the dart-eyed White House staffer.
A priority is said to be reinvestigating Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It still hurts so much. But several Democratic senators who voted against him lost. Democrats, for your own good and the good of the nation, suck it up. America has fought that battle. It ended how it ended. Grown-ups know when it’s over.
Two years of fruitless fighting seems inevitable, doesn’t it? But it will be hard on America, another demoralizing mess. There is a better way. It begins with the idea that deals are good, not bad. America would benefit from legislative agreements on health care, immigration, infrastructure.
First Democrats need to change their style. They have spent the past two years, since the beginning of the post-Clintonian era, hissing at hearings and wearing pink hats. They looked like fools. Sen. Claire McCaskill acknowledged it in the closing argument of her losing campaign: “I’m not one of those crazy Democrats.” They should try to present themselves now as a serious governing party, as people of stature.
They should wait for Robert Mueller’s findings, which will come soon enough. Until then any new probes should be few and orderly. A smarter way to operate would be for Democrats to move on legislation while holding the threat of investigations over the president’s head. The new speaker could confide to him in the Oval Office that he or she has personally stopped 16 probes this week, at some personal political cost.
Tuesday night gave party leaders new room to maneuver. For two years established Democrats have been freaked out by the rising progressives of their base. Those progressives are an angry lot, and demanding. But they just had a bad election. Their darlings fell. At the moment—just the moment—they should be tended to, but not feared.
Democrats should understand the president wants a deal. He’s in another circus phase; he needs to show he can roll with history’s punches. And there’s a sense he actually yearns for greatness. When he talks about deal-making he sounds almost wistful. He wants to do something big.
Do it with him. Newt Gingrich wasn’t the friend of the calculating, louche Bill Clinton, and Mr. Clinton didn’t like those mean-minded, selfish right-wingers. Yet together they made pretty good music—balanced budgets, welfare reform. It served their interests, but they also had a sense of historical responsibility. Democratic leaders in the House have to be equal to Newt in impulse control. It’s not a high bar!
They have the president at a disadvantage. He is a businessman who’s never had to answer to a board. His whole professional life it was him and his whims and his hunger and a series of organizations of which he was sole or principal owner. Democratic leaders should see themselves as his board. They’ve got a CEO they don’t like, but they’ve got some power and they’re using it to save the company. A united board can scare a CEO. Donald Trump up against a board will not be so sure-footed. He will agree to a lot of what you want.
Progress on illegal immigration and controlling the border would please the working class, show Democrats as capable, hearten the nation. And when the caravan walking north (and future caravans) know both major parties are against what they’re doing, they’ll stop it or slow down. They’re a caravan only because they know the American parties are divided, and they see an opening in that division.
Progress on immigration would require concessions from the Democrats, and might take a major issue away from the Republicans. But progress on health care would take concessions from Republicans and take a major issue away from Democrats. A deal there would almost certainly give Democrats a lot of what they want. But the president has signaled flexibility.
And it’s not as if such deal making would wound his political soul. He’s a moderate New York Democrat anyway. The play he should have made early on, as a unique political figure with a populist base, was always Chuck and Nancy, not Paul Ryan. Why not do it now?
Throughout the election it was clear Democrats couldn’t tell you who they are, and Republicans didn’t tell you what they’d do. They didn’t know; the president hadn’t told them. But sometimes when things are unclear, new possibilities emerge.
What politicians forget in the day to day, chest-deep in the fray, is the reason they are there. It’s not to serve themselves and their party. If you’re a member of Congress, it’s to represent a portion of America, a little sliver of the country, to see to its realities and interests while keeping an eye, first, on the nation as a whole.
This country could use some deals.
This is actually a time of promise and possibility because it’s a time of movement. Nancy Pelosi loves her country. So, I think, does Donald Trump. They should do something big for it, and not just devote themselves to two years of a fruitless fight.