Losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats in Tuesday’s midterm election will likely help President Trump win reelection in 2020.
First, assigning blame to one party for policy inactivity and policy failure is easier with united government than with divided government. Democratic control of the House provides cover for Trump for as to why additional items in his agenda were not enacted in the two years running up to the next presidential election. Indeed, Trump could again focus on proposals for greater infrastructure spending, lower Medicare drug prices, and other populist economic policies more generally. In doing so he would place Democrats in a hard spot: If they simply refuse to move, Trump draws attention to Democratic intransigence as the explanation for his agenda’s lack of success. If the Democrats do not resist, Trump actually gains additional policy successes—ones that a GOP-controlled House likely would not have enacted.
The temptation for House Democrats to deny Trump any policy success over the next two years will be very great. But this is a double-edged sword for the Democrats, with the ironic possibility that they will provide Trump the cover that a Republican House could not. Any President, not simply Trump, has a singular bully pulpit Congress cannot match. I would not bet against Trump in a finger-pointing context of who’s to blame for policy gridlock.
Secondly, however, the temptation is great for the Democrats to overplay their hand, both politically and ideologically.
First, the latter. While both Trump and the Democrats have their true believers, for the wide swath of the middle it’s a matter of which side repulses fewer voters. In his matchup against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Clinton repulsed enough voters in enough electorally pivotal states to hand the election to Trump. To be sure, Clinton labored under a unique set of electoral disabilities, both personal and political. But the Democrats aren’t reading the tea leaves correctly if they think the answer to Clinton’s disabilities is to lurch leftward. While this plays to true believers on Democratic left, the outcome is to scare more centrist voters to support Trump, even if they do so while holding their noses. And even when ideological polarization increases, elections are still decided by median or pivotal voters, even if there are relatively fewer than previously.
The temptation for House Democrats to overplay their new control over formal powers of the House will be huge as well. While many Democratic House candidates played it cool and focused on bread and butter issues in their district-level campaigns, a wide swath of the Democratic base and the liberal commentariat is in thrall to Trump Derangement Syndrome. The pressure on House Democrats to use the formal powers of the House to “get” Trump, whether by impeachment or merely the subpoena power, will be immense. But, again, the trick is appease the rabid supporter without putting off the median voter. As the recent Senate controversy over Justice Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court suggests, balancing the two is difficult. Democratic overplay likely contributed to losing two additional Senate seats.
This can happen in a contest between Trump and House Democrats as well. Democrats need to keep in mind that Congress normally has a job approval rating about half that of the President. It’s far from clear that if the House goes after Trump that Trump will pay the electoral cost. The Democrats could end up making Trump look good. The irony is that the Democratic takeover of the House increases the odds of Trump’s reelection in 2020.