The Irish Times view on the US midterms: Trump awaits the people’s verdict

While Democratic control of House would act as brake on Trump’s domestic agenda, it would be naive to think it would tame him

In the final weekend before Americans will go to the polls and decide the make-up of the 116th United States Congress US President Donald Trump squared off against former president Barack Obama.

 

Voters in the United States go to the polls today in midterm elections that could profoundly affect the dynamics of Washington politics for the remainder of the Trump presidency. Although it’s still within the realm of plausibility that the Republican Party could hold on to both houses, opinion polls suggest the Democrats are well-placed to retake control of the House. It would take a collapse in the conservative vote for the Republicans to lose their slim majority in the Senate, however.

A decade of Republican gerrymandering meant Democrats went into the campaign facing big structural obstacles. They have surmounted them thanks to considerable anti-Trump sentiment, which has grown in particular in well-off suburban areas, but also by fielding a slew of strong, well-funded candidates in key races.

Democratic senator Claire McCaskill is facing the race of her life to defend her seat against Republican challenger Josh Hawley. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images
US Midterms: Democratic senator Claire McCaskill is facing the race of her life to defend her seat against Republican challenger Josh Hawley. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

As usual, the midterms are partly a referendum on the president. Trump has played an active role in the campaign – but not in the way the Republican leadership wanted. A more strategically-minded politician would have used the closing stages of the campaign to focus on the booming economy. That would help to limit Republican losses in the House, or even keep the party in with a chance of retaining the chamber, by reassuring the suburban swing voters who have been drifting to the Democrats.

Since Trump came to power, Republicans have failed to act as a check on presidential power

Comfort zone

Instead, Trump has stayed in his comfort zone and played directly to his base. At a series of rallies in dark-red strongholds, the president has focused on immigration virtually to the exclusion of everything else. He has floated the idea of ending birthright citizenship, deployed the military to defend against the imaginary threat from a far-off migrant “caravan” and run racist advertisements portraying immigrants as criminals.

Rather than seeking to unify after a mass killing at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and the targeting of prominent liberals with letter bombs during the campaign, Trump sought to amplify his hateful rhetoric. His approach to the campaign may have helped Republican senators defending rural states, but it suggested that Trump had written off his party’s chances of retaining the House.

A Democratic takeover there would be good for American democracy. Since Trump came to power, Republicans have failed to act as a check on presidential power. Proper congressional oversight would begin to put that right. While Democratic control of the House would act as a brake on Trump’s domestic agenda, however, it would be naive to think it would tame him.

His worst acts as president have been committed by way of executive orders or the broad powers he enjoys over foreign policy. Loss of control over the legislative process will do nothing to alter his ability to use his position to vilify opponents, hurt minorities, erode trust in institutions or alienate America’s allies.

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