The Tug Of War For America

More registered Republicans than Democrats have been voting early.

A feat to put 2016 in the shade. Donald Trump may be about to drive his revolution of Western politics on to an entirely new level. Democrats, be afraid, be very afraid.

Donald Trump may be about to drive his revolution of Western politics on to an entirely new level. If at next Tuesday’s mid-term elections Trump’s Republicans retain their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will be an even more ­astonishing and perhaps even more consequential victory than Trump’s initial stunning upset in winning the presidency in 2016.

Trump, love him or loathe him, is changing Western politics fundamentally. He is restructuring the American parties, completely changing the policy agenda and implementing more of the reasonable bits of his program than anyone, certainly including me, ever imagined.

Of course, the outcome of the elections is uncertain. The consensus of pollsters is that the ­Republicans will hold the Senate and narrowly lose the house.

That would still be a strong result for Trump. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama lost control of the house in huge defeats in their first term mid-term elections. Yet both men went on to win convincing re-election two years later.

It is more important that Trump hold the Senate than the house. Even with clear Republican control of both houses, he has been able to pass very little legislation. If the Republicans retain the house with a tiny majority of one or even a half-dozen, they will not pass much legislation.

The Senate, however, is crucial. It is a smaller and much more powerful chamber, perhaps the most powerful deliberative legislative chamber in the world. Above all, the Senate confirms senior appointments, especially Supreme Court justices, and ratifies treaties.

Not only that, the Senate is elected in an especially odd way. One-third of its number is elected every two years. Purely by chance, Republicans this year are defending only a handful of vulnerable Senate seats. Most of the senators up for re-election are Democrats. Therefore, this election favours Republicans in the Senate.

US President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Huntington, West Virginia, on November 2.

However, in the long run, this Senate race has an even greater significance. If Trump should lose the presidency in two years, there is a strong chance the Democrats could take the Senate then. If they were to win another cycle after that they could even end up with 60 senators, which allows them to override any filibuster from their opponents. A future filibuster-proof Democrat majority is much less likely if the Republicans hold the Senate this time.

The consensus of polls is pretty strong that the Republicans will hold the Senate and lose the house. The RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls suggests the Republicans will emerge with at least 50 senators, the Democrats with 44, and with six toss-ups. If the toss-ups split evenly, the Republicans will emerge with 53 senators. That would be a significant improvement on their position in the Senate. On its own, this would be a profound vindication of Trump.

There is a slight structural advantage for the Republicans in the Senate. Every state gets two senators. Republicans disproportionately win small, rural states and Democrats disproportionately win big, urban states, so the ­Republicans have a small natural advantage. They win more senators with fewer votes. But that guarantees nothing.

The RCP average of polls for the House of Representatives has the Republicans winning 195 seats for sure and the Democrats 203 for sure. That means the Democrats need to win only 15 of the 37 toss-ups to get a majority in the house. But the polls are still uncertain. Will there by “shy” Republicans, voters who don’t tell the truth to pollsters, as there were shy Trumpers?

Early voting in all states but one has seen more registered Republicans voting than registered Democrats. On the other hand, the generic poll advantage of congressional Democrats over congressional Republicans is nearly 8 per cent. An advantage that big normally translates into congressional victory. But Trump 2016, Brexit and everything else tells us not to trust the polls too much.

A narrow Democrat win in the house remains the likeliest outcome, although the Republicans could just hang on or, if the votes fall the right way, the Democrats may win as many as 240 seats. That is still not a landslide.

If the Republicans do hang on in the house, that will be a magnificent result for Trump. If the Democrats win, the chief consequence would be that the Democrats would control the house committee chairmanships and get more resources from that. More important, they would be able to hold endless congressional hearings into the Trump administration and all its works. They could even contemplate moving impeachment articles.

This may, however, cause much less trouble to Trump than it would to a normal presidency. The Democrats and most of the mainstream media have screamed themselves hoarse for two years denouncing everything that Trump does as treason, racism, sexism, bullying and all the rest.

All that hysterical Trump-derangement syndrome outpouring has proven to be remarkably ineffective as a way of opposing Trump. Polls show that nearly half of Americans believe the mainstream media is campaigning against Trump. They are right. It’s not only that most of the US media have abandoned objectivity, they’ve abandoned proportion.

When every single thing that Trump says or does is reported as an outrage, half the US electorate grows immune to the outrage.

Watching CNN yesterday, I saw a news report begin with the news reader saying: “In a rambling, factually challenged speech from the White House on Thursday, President Trump promised to crack down on an immigration crisis which does not seem to exist.”

As the TV equivalent of a newspaper opinion column, that would be fair enough. As the comment of a panellist discussing Trump, that would be fair enough. But for it to lead a news bulletin is ridiculous. Within the bounds of the rhetorical overreach that all sides of US politics now indulge in, it is reasonable for Trump to describe such ­effusions as “fake news”.

Moreover, the almost insane focus by the Democrats on the allegations that Trump colluded in a criminal way with the Russians before the 2016 election, for which there is so far no smoking gun, seems to cut no ice with voters.

Polls show that the issues on which they are voting are: Trump, healthcare, the economy, jobs and illegal immigration. Trump’s campaign slogan of “Jobs not mobs” is pretty effective.

It is right for Trump’s critics to say he took abusive rhetoric from a presidential candidate to a new low. But even the centre Left, much less the far Left, has been speaking of its opponents in foul and abusive ways for years. The only difference was that this seldom came from its presidential candidate. Now the hate-filled rhetoric from the Left — routinely accusing Trump of treason, styling itself “the resistance”, a pro-Democrat mainstream TV host saying of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, that it would be good “if we could publicly cut off his pesky penis”, Robert De Niro saying he wants to punch Trump in the face and all the rest — has not been an effective way for Democrats to convince the US public that they represent civility and reason.

Many Americans are distressed by the hate-filled, low-rent quality of political rhetoric today. But they rightly see Trump as no worse than his opponents. And, of course, many Trump supporters love his combativeness.

Serious political analysts can see a significant, almost structural, consequence of the Trump style. It deprives the Democrats and their culture warrior allies of their political correctness weapon. Because Democrats, purveying identity politics, cultivate the idea that everything is offensive and Republicans should be always apologising, they can often secure, especially from a complicit media, an assumed if false moral superiority to Republicans. Trump’s verbal aggression, while at times unattractive, has had the effect of ­diminishing the effectiveness of this pseudo-moral blackmail.

The truth is Trump’s presidency has been vastly better than any of his critics, including me, expected it to be. The Economist magazine, which on cultural issues is now centre Left and which has hated Trump from the start, recently ran a definitive column judging Trump’s foreign policy to be overall fairly successful.

Similarly, you cannot gainsay the Trump economy unless you are completely indifferent to facts. There may well be debt and deficit problems ahead, but Trump has turbocharged US economic growth to better than 3 per cent. Unemployment is down to an almost unbelievable 3.7 per cent. African-American unemployment is at almost record lows. Productivity across the economy is sharply up. And, at last, wages are growing strongly, 3 per cent in the year just gone and accelerating.

The economy may well have troubles down the road, but if any modern president produced an economy with figures like that he could well imagine himself being immortalised on Mount Rushmore. Indeed, politically, you can almost use these figures to point out the limitations in Trump’s polarising political strategies.

If a naturally popular figure such as Clinton or Ronald Reagan oversaw economic numbers such as that, the approval rating would be stratospheric.

It is also the case that this economic boom is not unrelated to Trump’s policies. He didn’t just luck on it. He has cut corporate tax rates, cut business regulation including environmental regulation, secured better deals on trade and takes a wholly pro-business approach. Republicans would always argue that the best form of welfare is a job. Trump even seems to be making some political headway with African-Americans.

There is a very active movement of young African-American conservatives championing “Blexit”, the exit of black Americans from the Democratic Party.

It is an open question how much Trump is effecting structural change to US politics. The Republican Party is trying very hard to convert Trump voters into regular Republicans. Trump in 2016 got a lot of working-class people in the mid-west who formerly voted Democrat to vote Republican for the first time. He also got people to vote who hadn’t voted before or hadn’t voted in decades.

A populist leader often holds a false promise for established parties. The support melts away when the populist leaves the scene. But the Republican Party is doing everything it can to convert these Trumpers into long-term Republicans. This speaks to the deeper transformation of US politics, which pre-dated Trump. The poorest states, and many of the poorest districts, now vote solidly Republican. The richest states, and many of the richest districts, now vote Democrat. Just as nationalism once trumped Marxism, now it is trumping liberalism. The Republicans have captured a bunch of the white working class and the white poor living in rural areas. If they can extend that reach to black and Hispanic working-class voters, they will become much more formidable.

The other transformation Trump is pioneering, and that may yet have quite doleful conse­quences, is that he is showing that political aggression works. At the height of the controversy over whether now Justice Brett Kavanaugh was guilty of uncorroborated and highly questionable allegations of sexual misconduct many decades ago, almost every mainstream commentator in the US ­assumed this would hurt Trump and hurt the Republicans, especially among women.

The polls are complex but it seems there was some effect of that kind. However, overall, Trump’s ratings rose during that period, and when the Kavanaugh matter was at its most intense, the generic advantage for congressional Democrats almost disappeared.

The enthusiasm gap disappeared, too. Voting is not compulsory in the US and in the light of the Kavanaugh controversy, Republican voters were suddenly as enthusiastic as Democrat voters. And Kavanaugh united virtually all Republicans. George W. Bush rang senators to lobby for Trump’s choice. If the congressional election had been held then, the Republicans almost certainly would have held the house.

Trump personally made the decision to go aggressive on Kavanaugh. His political judgment was superior to that of the pundits and to many of his advisers.

Further, through his tweets and his huge rallies, Trump has the ability to set the agenda. The personal attacks on him are ever less salient and consequential. And in the past week or 10 days of the campaign, Trump has focused on illegal immigration, as a caravan of several thousand would-be illegal immigrants walk through Mexico towards the US border.

The Democrats have been eerily silent and tongue-tied on this issue. There is no reason to assume the caravan of migrants are bad people, as Trump wrongly alleges. However, there is almost no support in America for open borders. The proposition that you get permanent US residence just by walking to the border may thrill some diehard Democrats, but it has next to no support in the mainstream in the US.

Provided Trump keeps the Senate, he should emerge from the mid-terms as strong as ever. If he should retain the house, still unlikely but not at all impossible, his position will be massively strengthened. And that will have global consequences.

The Australian

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