Although Democrats gained ground everywhere but the Senate, President Trump won the midterm. While doubly counterintuitive — that opponents could advance and someone not on the ballot prevail — Democrats not only failed to knock Mr. Trump out in 2018, but set him up for 2020. Democrats won enough to make themselves relevant, but in doing so, also making a perfect contrast for the president.
These midterms were memorable more for what they were not, than for what they were. There was no Blue Wave. This was neither 2010, nor 1994, when Democrats suffered greater quantitative and qualitative setbacks under President Obama and President Clinton. Further, Democrats’ stymied momentum may have internal repercussions beyond a lost bandwagon effect.
These midterms confirmed expectations. In Congress, Republicans lost the House, where high retirements and historical precedent — the president’s party having lost seats in every midterm, except 2002, over the last 80 years — foretold that. Likewise, Republicans’ state-level losses: Huge existing majorities in governorships and statehouses meant losses were virtually inevitable — though Republicans still retain majorities. In the Senate, where Republicans bucked precedent, Democrats’ defense of so many seats meant this outcome was probable too.
If 2018’s midterms basically confirmed expectations, and those are that the president loses midterm seats, how did he win? He did primarily, not so much by what happened, as where and how it did — losing the House.
Certainly, Mr. Trump proved himself an indefatigable and formidable campaigner — serving notice to 2020 Democrat aspirants that they had best bring their A-game: Mr. Trump will not be 1992’s George H.W. Bush.
He also got a valuable wake-up call from independents and moderates. In 2016, Mr. Trump beat Democrats by 4 points among independents (46-42 percent) and lost moderates by 12 points (40-52 percent). In 2020, Republicans lost independents to Democrats by 12 points (42-54 percent) and moderates by 26 points (36-62 percent). However, the House, the one place Republicans lost their majority, is the perfect means for fixing this problem.
According to Real Clear Politics, Democrats will have between 228 and 236 House seats (currently holding a 227-199 edge, with eight seats still undecided). That means they could lose between 18 and 10 of their members and still operate the House. Such small margin of error will prove a large piece of leverage for their most liberal members — just as Republicans’ larger majority proved to be for their most conservative members in the current Congress.
In the Founders’ “cup and saucer” metaphor for Congress (the Senate being the cooling saucer), the House, under the best of circumstances, would be the hot cup. Even the bluest of states, have conservative pockets that their Senators must take into account. Not so House districts.
Gerrymandered to party specifications, blue House districts can be downright indigo. Rather than a check to a liberal member’s proclivity, they can be a fillip. Add to this the left’s fever pitch before the midterms, and their current disappointment from missing Mr. Trump’s definitive defeat — as well as a Republican Senate and president able to block their legislative aims — and the most liberal members could be a particular problem for the House Democratic leadership.
This could make for a boiling brew indeed. Yet such a tempest in a teacup would be the ideal contrast for President Trump to make inroads to the independents and moderates he needs in 2020.
The most extreme contrast for Mr. Trump — and the one most desired and discussed on the left, but held in check as much as possible by Democratic 2018 campaign officials — would be a Democratic House’s impeachment of him. When Republicans did this to Bill Clinton, it proved his rehabilitation and their undoing. The same could happen again, and perhaps to an even greater extent, because a Republican Senate will not convict the resident, and many red state Democrats would be forced into an excruciating vote — with just one needed to give Mr. Trump “bipartisan exoneration.”
Nor would House Democrats have to go to the extreme of impeachment to give President Trump a positive contrast. Investigations, hearings, delay and obstruction (recall Harry Truman’s success with a “Do Nothing Congress” campaign), and even errant legislation — all could serve the president’s purposes with independent and moderate voters.
As with all things political, moderation is in the eye of the voter, and Democratic House positions therefore could serve to moderate President Trump by contrast alone. Doing so would provide Mr. Trump the help he needs most (an appearance of moderating), where he needs it most (with independent and moderate voters), and precisely when he needs it most (leading into his re-election). For those doubting this could happen, again recall Bill Clinton’s benefit from his Republican congressional adversaries — re-election (1996) and rehabilitation (1998-99). Mr. Trump would like nothing more.
• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget.
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