After the midterms: Checks, balances and turmoil?

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By John J. Metzler

NEW YORK — The results of the U.S. midterm elections did not follow the predictable script outlined by the mainstream media and most pollsters, namely that the ruling Republicans and President Trump would be soundly rebuked by a restive electorate. Rather a complex outcome offered gains for both sides; the Democrat party narrowly won control of the House of Representatives while the president’s Republicans actually expanded their hold on the Senate.

The Wall Street Journal headlined, “Split Decision.”

Theoretically the results bode well for legislative checks and balances on the presidency but at the same time, realistically we can predict that the vitriolic pent-up anger and frustration by the Democrats against Trump will not likely result in bi-partisan cooperation but in further turmoil in Washington.

As the National Journal stated, “Voters want Balance, Not Resistance.”

First here’s a little background. Midterm elections are held every four years, at the midpoint of a President’s term, to take the political pulse of the electorate. The contests involve each and every member of the 435 members of the House and a third of the Senate. It’s usually the norm that the voters chide the incumbent with a loss of Congressional seats. Even Ronald Reagan after having won his 1980 landslide victory, was slapped two years later with a loss of 26 seats in the House of Representatives.

Clearly the political animus towards President Trump by most Democrats and some Republicans had set the stage for what the mainstream media was soberly predicting as a Tsunami or Blue Wave which would almost certainly sweep the GOP majority from the House and some claimed possibly even the Senate.

But as election night wore on, it appeared the predicted tsunami would be more like a gentle blue wave. Clearly the strong economy served as a breakwater. And in the frothing bubbles of that wave we find key GOP wins in Florida and Indiana. Still in liberal states like New York and California the political polarization has hardened.

The predictions were based on giddy anti-Trump hysteria, new and young voter enthusiasm, and the conventional wisdom that midterms punish the incumbent. The actual results were based on a strong American economy, record low unemployment, the core support of the president’s base in rural and southern states, as well as the unstated fear of Nancy Pelosi returning as House Majority Leader.

But while the Democrats needed to reach 218 seats to recapture the House, they won 223.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton lost 54 House seats and 9 Senate seats in the historic Republican wave election. As recently as 2010, newly elected President Barack Obama was soundly rebuked with a loss of 63 House seats and a further 6 losses in the Senate. That’s conveniently overlooked in the narrative.

After near incessant talk, wishful predictions and the hand of historical inevitability that Trump would be slammed by a record midterm turnout in the seething electorate, the Republicans surprisingly gained at least three seats in the U.S. Senate, and possibly reaching the 1962 record of 4 seats for a Midterm!

“President Trump has a lot to be proud of,” stated Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC).

“The GOP has had a good night in the Senate.” He added, “I’m excited. It means that judges keep moving forward on the conservative side and it’s going to put some pressure on all of us to up our game.”

But let’s be realistic; the Democrats’ narrow win remains a win nonetheless. The real issue becomes that besides Nancy Pelosi returning as House Leader, the Democrats will control the key committee chairmanships in Congress which will create or hinder a legislative agenda.

Anti-Trump animus will tempt many to open the new Congress in January with a slew of subpoenas and new investigations of President Trump thus causing further legislative gridlock.

Nonetheless the more disruptive the Democrats become in the new Congress will play into the hands of Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. With representatives like Adam Schiff chairing the Intelligence Committee, leftist icon Rep. Maxine Waters in the Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Jerry Nadler in the Judiciary Committee, the partisan path to endless and wasteful hearings is being prepared.

Indeed the stage may now be set for thumping theatrical legislative turmoil which will energize the GOP and play perfectly into Donald Trump’s core narrative.

But now it’s up to both parties to tone down the rhetoric, bridge the yawning partisan rift, and try to finally work together in Washington before the divide dangerously deepens.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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