by Santiago de la Presilla

Note: this article was written before Election Day.

Politicians of all stripes love telling voters how the upcoming election is always the most important one in their lifetime. This time, there’s some truth to it. 

Midterms in the United States, although not as high profile and doomed with an even lower voter turnout, have always been considered a referendum on the sitting president. 6 November 2018 is the first time Americans get to the ballot box since the upset election of Donald Trump in 2016. What’s at stake? Nothing less than all 435 seats of the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate. Add to that 36 gubernatorial races. By all means, this election carries as much weight as 2016.  

A string of pipe bombs sent to Democratic officials by an avid Trump supporter, an anti-Semitic terrorist attack at a synagogue in Pittsburg that left 11 dead, dog whistling on a migrant caravan headed towards the U.S. border, this year’s election is overshadowed by events that constitute a deeper malaise in the republic.  

“If we lose the House, he’s [Trump] gonna get impeached. This a referendum on him,” argues former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. He’s right. Where are Trump voters? They are complacent, happy about the fact he has delivered on many of his campaign promises. But most importantly, his base is happy he has changed the office of the president, not the other way around.  

Most Democratic strategists believe taking back the House is possible, increasing the chances of impeachment – the Senate seems to be a lost cause.  

A lame duck? Ask Obama. 

For Democrats, who have lost over 1,000 state legislature seats since Obama’s election in 2008, winning states like West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, Montana, and Missouri, states Trump carried by double-digits, seem a fool’s errand. A state like Texas, for example, hasn’t had a Democratic senator for over three decades. The House is another story. Democrats believe more House seats are up for grabs due to the record number of Republican incumbents choosing not to run for office. Facing tough primaries in their home states against staunchly pro-Trump contenders, 44 Republican incumbents have opted for early retirement by not throwing their hats in the ring.  

To Bannon’s relief, impeachment remains unlikely, and if it ever were to happen, Trump would endure the nasty process. What does remain more probable is a presidency unable to pass any meaningful piece of legislation, even after Trump’s reelection in 2020. The result? A de facto lame duck Trump presidency.  

Whilst over the last three decades the office of president has only gained more and more power at the expense of the legislative branch, U.S. presidents average one major, signature law in which they spend most, if not all, of their political capital.  

For Obama, it was the Affordable Care Act. Better known as ObamaCare, the controversial law that was passed along partisan lines in 2010. Even though its relative success is being undermined by the current administration, it remains Obama’s legacy. For George W. Bush, it was the unpopular Iraq troop surge in 2006. For Clinton, it was signing NAFTA… You get the point. 

For Trump? His 2017 tax cuts. The cuts have resulted in an economic boom that most political opponents thought was impossible. GDP growth of 3%, which some called a ‘Republican fantasy’, is now a reality. The catch?  Deficits hitting $981 billion in 2019 and exceeding $1 trillion “every year after that,” according to the Congressional Budget Office.   

It’s the courts, stupid 

With much talk of the ‘Kavanaugh effect’, undecided voters siding with Republicans over the politicization of now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation amid rape allegations, it is no secret wounded presidents often go through the courts for meaningful change.  The legalization of gay marriage in 2015 is a great example. With a new conservative majority in the Supreme Court, thanks to two justices appointed by Trump, the country’s courts are experiencing a transformation that will last for a generation.  

Even though Trump has been slow when it comes to political appointments, in 2017 the Senate confirmed 12 of his appeal courts picks, a record for a president’s first year in office. Regardless of the midterms, change can and will be brought upon the country through the judicial system long after Trump vacates the White House.   

18 December 2018
This text was published in Bullseye issue 74