For the new Democrats, the future is bright
There’s no denying that the Democrats had a good night on Tuesday, even if unlikely fantasies of taking the Senate remained unfulfilled. Seizing control of the House of Representatives was a huge victory, for all it was expected. Crucially, there were strong Democratic showings in rust-belt states Donald Trump carried in 2016, and big wins in gubernatorial races, especially in Kansas, where the odious Trump clone Kris Kobach was defeated by a surprisingly big margin by Democrat Laura Kelly.
And even if they didn’t win, it was a dream deferred, not crushed, for two rising African American stars: Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida. Likewise, Beto O’Rourke will certainly be a Democratic force for years to come, having come so tantalisingly close to unseating Senator Ted Cruz in Texas. No Democrat has done as well as O’Rourke did in that state in decades. He’s already being talked about as a potential presidential contender.
One of the most hopeful outcomes was the election of a far more diverse Congress. Many more women entered the House, and a record 272 ran for Congress, including 84 women of colour. In Colorado, Jared Polis became the nation’s first openly gay person to be elected governor.
In other words, the results make it clear there is trouble ahead for the president. The Mueller investigation has yet to report and, taking the chairs of many important committees, Democrats will use their oversight powers to investigate the ample trail of corruption already evident. In a taste of things to come, those who will control the powerful House ways and means committee announced on Tuesday night that they intend to demand the president’s tax records.
Nancy Pelosi, almost certain to be the next House speaker, promised late on Tuesday night “a new day in America”. But as she spoke, she was surrounded by the ageing members of her party’s leadership, demonstrating the difficulty of making good on her pledge. Her immediate challenge is to usher in a new generation of Democratic leaders. (Presidential dreamers such as Joe Biden and even Hillary Clinton are said to be contemplating running once again.)
Democrats would be silly to dispose of the effective Pelosi, who is a great vote-marshaller. Obamacare wouldn’t have passed without her. But the party has to be smart and not play on the president’s turf. It was heartening to see its candidates stick to a coherent message on the campaign trail and, with uncharacteristic discipline, focus on healthcare and the importance of coverage for pre-existing conditions. They need to keep it up. One challenge they face is whether to lean to the left, responding to the success of candidates such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or whether to stay closer to the middle, in the hope of cementing their 2018 success with suburban Republican voters, especially women, who deplore the negative tone their party has adopted. Democrats are still badly split, just as they were in 2016 when Bernie Sanders ran against Clinton for the nomination. While former president Obama emerged late in the campaign and fired up the troops, there is no clear future party leader.
The challenges Trump faces in the future are even more daunting, however. House defeats, particularly in Virginia, where rightwing Barbara Comstock lost, in Pennsylvania and other once very red states, including Texas, were part of a stinging rebuke for the president. Another Trump clone, Steve King of Iowa, won by only three percentage points in a district that Trump carried by more than 20 two years ago.
The tone of Trumpism is still offensive to many voters, even if the base eats it up. It will take a long time to wash off the stain of Trump’s cascade of lies at his closing rallies. Invoking the “caravan of invaders” at every stop, he insisted disease, crime and worse were massing on the south-western border.
It’s been shocking to see almost no Republicans of conscience speaking out against these slurs or the president’s words. Will this hold for the next two years? Mitt Romney, who on Tuesday was elected senator for Utah, forcefully denounced Trump in 2016. Could he emerge as a voice of conscience?
In the New York Review of Books recently, Christopher Browning wrote a brilliant and disturbing article titled Dismantling Democracy 1933 v 2018. Whether democratic values will be destroyed by the political crisis President Trump has created is still a haunting question. But on Tuesday, an answer began to emerge: it won’t happen here.