Lessons learned, per­haps, from midterm elec­tions

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION - GE­ORGE WILL Colum­nist E-mail georgewill@wash­post.com. (c) 2018, Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

WASH­ING­TON — Amer­ica’s body politic has re­cently been scarred by ex­cru­ci­at­ing po­lit­i­cal shin­gles, and 2018 cam­paign­ing was equiv­a­lent to acid re­flux. But Tues­day’s elec­tions in­di­cated that some po­lit­i­cal an­ti­bod­ies are strength­en­ing the na­tion’s im­mune sys­tem. Tues­day was, on bal­ance, de­flat­ing to Democrats, who learned — or per­haps not — that de­spis­ing this pres­i­dent, al­though un­der­stand­able, is in­suf­fi­cient. His com­port­ment caused his con­gres­sional party only slightly more than half the car­nage Obama’s party suf­fered in the mid­dle of his first term.

The GOP de­press­ingly ends 2018 more ide­o­log­i­cally ho­moge­nous than it has been for 11 decades. Hitherto, it has been di­vided be­tween Theodore Roo­sevelt pro­gres­sives and Wil­liam Howard Taft con­ser­va­tives; be­tween Robert Taft con­ser­va­tives and Thomas Dewey mod­er­ates; be­tween Nel­son Rock­e­feller lib­er­als and Barry Gold­wa­ter lib­er­tar­i­ans. In to­day’s monochrome GOP — color it or­ange, for the coif­fure of its Dear Leader — pos­tures range all the way from syco­phancy to ado­ra­tion.

Amer­i­cans are sen­si­bly par­si­mo­nious with their trust, pre­fer­ring di­vided gov­ern­ment to one party’s con­trol of both ends of Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue. So, when the 116th Congress ad­journs in au­tumn 2020, the na­tion will have com­pleted 40 years in which one party con­trolled the pres­i­dency and Congress for only 10. Tues­day’s re­sults re­futed two tire­some and shop­worn ax­ioms: Amer­i­cans “vote their pock­et­books,” and “all pol­i­tics is lo­cal.” This year, Amer­i­cans voted their com­pet­ing na­tional aver­sions, some against the pres­i­dent’s palaver, oth­ers against those he baited into car­pet-chew­ing tantrums.

Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal dys­pep­sia pro­duced 2018’s surge in midterm vot­ing, which should, but won’t, sober those Pollyan­nas who in­sist that high turnouts in­di­cate civic health. In four Ger­man elec­tions from 1930-1933, as the Weimar Repub­lic crum­bled, Ger­man turnout av­er­aged 84 per­cent. Cam­paign spend­ing — about $5.2 bil­lion in House and Se­nate cam­paigns over the 2017-18 cy­cle; about what Amer­i­cans spend ev­ery two years on Hal­loween candy — should, but won’t, end hys­te­ria about “too much” money spent on po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy.

Nei­ther will this re­dun­dant ev­i­dence of the steeply de­clin­ing util­ity of cam­paign dol­lars: Beto O’Rourke raised $7 mil­lion, then $10 mil­lion, then $38 mil­lion in 2018’s first three quar­ters, and his Quin­nip­iac poll num­bers were 44 per­cent in April, 43 in July, 45 in Septem­ber, 46 in Oc­to­ber. Tues­day he re­ceived 48.3 per­cent, and his cable-tele­vi­sion groupies, im­per­vi­ous to dis­cour­age­ment, in­stantly segued to spec­u­la­tion about his pos­si­ble pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy.

Tues­day’s win­ners in­cluded the Af­ford­able Care Act. Ref­er­en­dums in three crim­son states — Idaho, Utah, Ne­braska — man­dated Med­ic­aid ex­pan­sion, Ne­braska’s Leg­is­la­ture had re­jected it six times, which is Oba­macare’s ar­rhyth­mic heart. And Repub­li­can can­di­dates ev­ery­where gen­u­flected at this al­tar: Pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions shall not pre­clude ac­cess to health in­sur­ance. Now many Democrats, artists of self-destruc­tion, might for­feit health care ground they gained: The 157 mil­lion Amer­i­cans con­tent with their em­ployer-pro­vided health in­sur­ance will rightly hear men­ace in “Medi­care for all.”

If Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the vil­lain in 61,000 Repub­li­can ads, is elected House speaker, she will be the first since Sam Ray­burn in 1955 to re­gain that post af­ter yield­ing it. If she is not elected by House Democrats, who are in­debted to her tac­ti­cal can­ni­ness and prodi­gious fundrais­ing, they will de­serve the Prince Fe­lix of Sch­warzen­berg Tro­phy: He was the Aus­trian prime min­is­ter who, when Rus­sia sought re­cip­ro­cal as­sis­tance af­ter help­ing Aus­tria sup­press un­rest, replied that Aus­tria would as­tound the world with its in­grat­i­tude.

Hav­ing strength­ened their grip on the Se­nate, Repub­li­cans, who two years hence will be de­fend­ing 21 seats — Democrats only 12 — in­creased the chance if they lose the pres­i­dency in 2020 they can im­pede or mod­ify Demo­cratic ini­tia­tives. Mean­while, the Repub­li­can Se­nate can con­tinue staffing fed­eral courts and be­ing what it has been while Repub­li­cans con­trolled the House: the grave­yard of House ini­tia­tives. Soon, House Democrats can per­haps pore over the pres­i­dent’s tax re­turns, ac­quaint his min­ions with over­sight, and even test his sin­cer­ity re­gard­ing his oc­ca­sional in­ter­est in in­fra­struc­ture mag­nif­i­cence.

John Mar­shall, the fa­mously ami­able fu­ture chief jus­tice, par­tic­i­pated in Vir­ginia’s heated de­bate — ad­ver­saries in­cluded ti­tans Ge­orge Ma­son and Patrick Henry — about rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Constitution. He later wrote, “The county in which I resided was de­cid­edly anti-fed­eral (against rat­i­fi­ca­tion), but I was at that time pop­u­lar, and par­ties had not yet be­come so bit­ter as to ex­tin­guish pri­vate af­fec­tions.” Ami­a­bil­ity could be in­fec­tious in a na­tion weary of pol­i­tics as Henry Adams de­fined it in “The Ed­u­ca­tion of Henry Adams” — “the sys­tem­atic or­ga­ni­za­tion of ha­treds.” Some­day, some­one in the up­per reaches of pol­i­tics is go­ing to re­sort to ami­a­bil­ity, as a nov­elty, and his or her party will pros­per.

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