Trump sends loud message
President Donald Trump’s silverware-saving mid-term election messages of strong borders and job-creating economic growth should be resonating with Liberal Party strategists.
Trump’s lines cut through with those voters who were wary of the Democrats’ lurch to the left in a direct parallel to the election questions that will confront Australian voters next year.
And anyone who thinks that Trump didn’t do well because the Republicans lost House seats — while counter-intuitively boosting their numbers in the Senate — isn’t aware of the history of mid-term elections.
It looks like the Republicans under a Trump White House have lost around 30 House seats which is well below the average of 37 for incumbent presidents since World War II.
The record is Barack Obama’s Democrats in 2010 with a crushing loss of 63 seats, closely followed by Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1994 with 52.
The Republicans lost 48 with both Eisenhower in 1958 and Ford in 1974. LBJ lost 47 for the Democrats in 1966 and Truman 45 for the Republicans in 1946 and 29 in 1950, just edged by George W. Bush’s 30 in 2006.
So not only was there no “blue wave” as predicted by most pundits, but there was nothing like the repudiation of Trump’s White House that the Democrats had promised — and desperately needed.
The House losses were countered by a net Senate gain of three Republican seats, not in terms of numbers or immediate political power, but in what it presages.
Where Trump personally campaigned, his supported candidates triumphed.
Democrat Senators who voted against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh lost.
Where former president Barack Obama campaigned to save Democrat seats, all four lost, a crushing rejection for someone who has to take much of the blame for making Trump’s America possible.
For the record, only three presidents have ever overseen mid-term House seat gains, Bush (8) in 2002, Clinton (5) in 1998 and FDR (9) in 1934. The mid-term elections usually offer a safe protest vote for the disenchanted.
And only three presidents have made gains in the Senate while losing House seats, Nixon (2) in 1970, JFK (4) in 1962 and Woodrow Wilson (3) in 1914, having lost 61 in the House.
All of that makes Trump’s House losses seem a little less dramatic than most of the initial media reporting suggested. Saving the Senate gives him valuable political protection.
The key to understanding it is in America’s voluntary voting, where turnout is crucial, and the hugely polarising nature of the President.
Where the sitting House Republican was a soft or anti-Trumper, the Democrat protest was magnified by a poor GOP turnout. That message won’t be lost in Republican pre-selection contests for 2020.
The Senate result is a further warning to tin-eared Democrats of what happens when they energise the Trump base by abusing him and his supporters — something that lost Hilary Clinton the 2016 race and looms as the big threat in 2020.
Democrat control of the House raises the spectre of two years of endless politicking through inquiries aimed at bringing down the President, regardless of the cost to the national fabric — let alone the improving economy.
The big question is whether the new wave of more leftist Democrats will influence the party to try to further impede Trump, even to the point of actively pursuing impeachment. The President was quick to warn them of the consequences, characteristically via Twitter:
“If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!”
A slightly smaller question is whether Trump will feel sufficiently rebuked to try to negotiate with a Democrat-led House, or chose the Stalingrad option when he senses opposition.
When the realities of the Democrats’ inability to turn a fairly big swing into a blue wave sink in, the party will have to face the realities of dealing with the Trump phenomenon.
Containment would be the sensible option, but it is almost certain that they will opt for confrontation, which just plays to Trump’s disruptive instincts.
The strength of America’s economic recovery — if it wins the China trade war — will ensure that its politics gets uglier while the social position of many people improves.
As the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board — which backed Obama in 2008 and 2012 — pointed out in May, Trump’s economic policies are working:
“The unemployment rate is now 3.9 per cent for all Americans, the lowest level since 2000, while the jobless rate for black workers is 6.6 per cent, the lowest figure since record-keeping began in the early 1970s.
“Yes, record-low joblessness for the black population, and for Latinos, a 4.8 per cent rate that ties their record low. Both still are higher than the 3.6 per cent rate for whites.”
Whether that translates into more Republican votes in 2020 is another thing, but it might keep many Democrats at home.
So what does this mean for Australia?
Malcolm Turnbull finally started talking about the economic growth that created one million new jobs under his prime ministership in his Q&A appearance on Thursday.
There was no mention of his hapless “innovation” agenda that failed to fly at the 2016 election.
The dumped prime minister also chose to defend the coalition’s asylum seeker policies — a critical Labor weak spot — when the ABC audience was pining for him to ditch them.
Trump saw a rolling land-based Tampa heading towards his southern borders and grasped the political opportunity. His critics cried there was no “invasion” while naively expecting he would not be hyperbolic when presented with such a gift.
The messaging problem for the Liberals is that they stopped the people smugglers’ boats — taking the heat out of the issue — but are being blamed for not sufficiently cleaning up Labor’s mess on Nauru.
But the essential campaign parallels remain obvious.
Illustration: Don Lindsay