Trump has been normalised in many voters’ eyes
US politics: Defeat of president in 2020 will be about presenting him as elitist
US president Donald Trump has allowed too large a gap between his rhetorical pitch to working Americans and his policies for them. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Donald Trump’s central achievement is his own normalisation. Nothing stands out from his first midterm elections as president so much as the normality of the results. It is normal to suffer big losses, as he did, to the tune of a now-Democratic House of Representatives. It is normal to nurse consolations, as he does, in a widened Senate majority.
None of which is to minimise the Democrats’ feat. Beneficiaries of a maritime event much larger than a ripple, if not quite a wave, they have a beach head in Washington. Their popular-vote margin in the House election could exceed that of the Republicans in their 1994 and 2010 walkovers. With a presidential race two Novembers away, they have suburban moderates and enthused loyalists.
But the hope that Trump’s 2016 election was aberrant, and that the US would take the first chance to reject him as a body rejects a foreign object, was only half-met. From his poor but not dire approval rating to the return of divided government, Trump’s predicament is, well, normal.
It is not Tuesday’s results, but their consequences, that promise to be otherwise. With committee control and subpoena powers, Democrats can now investigate Trump on several fronts: the Russian role in his 2016 win, his alleged elision of the presidential and the commercial. Adam Schiff, the probable new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, could not fail to be tougher on the president than Devin Nunes has been.
The question is how far to push it. The Democrats should take caution. It is hard to read into the midterm results a mandate for a March-to-the-Sea offensive. Nor did they even run on that promise: healthcare was the theme of a disciplined, almost technocratic campaign. Activists will want maximum pressure on the president, but those hard-won suburbanites might quail at two years of process. Beyond an oblique pledge to restore the “constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration”, Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to lead the House for the second time this decade, tellingly majored on substance in her victory speech.
If Robert Mueller, the special counsel, finds damningly about the president, it would be bizarre, even derelict, not to act. But Democrats “can’t look like Torquemada”, Spain’s 15th-century Grand Inquisitor, said their Virginia Congressman Gerald Connolly. That is, they cannot be seen to bay for impeachment from day one.
It would not just test the patience of those voters who, until proof emerges to the contrary, see Trump as a bad president rather than as a menace to the republic. It would also drain time and energy that Democrats could put to constructive purposes. Infrastructure, a higher federal minimum wage and protections for Obamacare are all better uses of their majority. Even if these bills fail in the Senate, Democrats could go into 2020 with a record of economic populism that outdoes Trump’s. Suddenly, he would be the elitist.
That way lies his defeat. He has allowed too large a gap between his rhetorical pitch to working Americans and his policies for them. The president should rue, in particular, his decision to cut taxes last year as though it were still 1986. The defrosted Reaganism obscured his populist theme and became an electoral dud in the midterms. Republicans should also realise that universal healthcare is no longer a European oddity, like the bidet, but the will of many Americans, even if they are vague on what in practice it should mean.
What Trump launched a few years ago as a rounded populism – economic and cultural – is now over-reliant on the cultural. He closed the campaign with a remorseless focus on immigration. It was effective as far as it went but politics has not become post-material. The basics of wages and services continue to count, even as the economy zooms.
Democrats cannot exploit the patchiness of his populism if they volunteer for a procedural saga. They must accept that while they, and much of the world, view him as a rogue president, he has, for now, been normalised in many voters’ eyes. Two years in the job will do that. It is not enough to run against the fact of his presence in the White House. He must be argued against on the usual terms: promises unkept, priorities skewed, implementations botched.
Democrats seemed to intuit as much in their highly controlled midterm campaign. The trick is to keep the discipline over the next two years, as candidates woo activists for the presidential nomination. An important race ended on Tuesday. A seismic one began. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018