A na­tion chal­lenged to de­fend democ­racy

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - NATION -

Pres­i­dent Trump has put on a sur­re­al­ity show in the run-up to the con­gres­sional elec­tions, promis­ing a mys­tery “mid­dle-class tax cut” with no ba­sis in fact, de­ploy­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel against des­per­ate mi­grants still 900 miles from the United States, and vow­ing to end con­sti­tu­tion­ally en­shrined birthright cit­i­zen­ship — a threat so du­bi­ous as to pro­voke a rare spat with Paul Ryan, the usu­ally pli­ant House speaker.

As mis­lead­ing as all these ma­neu­vers have been, they ac­cu­rately de­pict the gov­ern­ment that Amer­i­cans can ef­fec­tively rat­ify or re­ject on Tues­day. Give Trump credit for let­ting the vot­ers know what they’re about to vote for or against: de­cep­tion, divi­sion and dis­dain for the rule of law.

Repub­li­cans have a for­mi­da­ble ad­van­tage in the Se­nate, where most of the seats up for elec­tion are held by Democrats, sev­eral in the hos­tile ter­ri­tory of deepred states. But Trump’s GOP faces in­evitable losses in the House, where it holds al­most all of the most com­pet­i­tive seats. If Repub­li­cans nev­er­the­less cling to a ma­jor­ity by los­ing fewer than 23 seats in the lower cham­ber, the pres­i­dent will be em­bold­ened by two more years of limp leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship.

Ryan, for in­stance, was un­der­stated even in dis­agree­ing with the pres­i­dent Tues­day. The speaker noted (cor­rectly) that an ex­ec­u­tive or­der can­not undo the 14th Amend­ment, which grants cit­i­zen­ship to those born in the United States, be­fore has­ten­ing to em­pha­size his con­cur­rence with the White House’s hard line on “il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion” (a gross un­der­state­ment of Trump’s broadly and ag­gres­sively anti-im­mi­grant stance). Un­der­scor­ing how sel­dom and un­wel­come such ex­pres­sions of con­gres­sional in­de­pen­dence are, Trump re­sponded by pub­licly ridi­cul­ing Ryan, who, he said on Twit­ter, “knows noth­ing” about the is­sue and “should be fo­cus­ing on hold­ing the Ma­jor­ity.”

If Ryan and the Repub­li­cans don’t re­tain that ma­jor­ity, likely mak­ing Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi speaker again, Trump will have more to ob­ject to than a po­litely phrased les­son in con­sti­tu­tional law. Deficit­fi­nanced tax cuts, real or imag­ined, would face scru­tiny. In­stead of pre­tend­ing to pro­tect the Af­ford­able Care Act for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, the ma­jor­ity might ac­tu­ally do so. House com­mit­tees cur­rently pre­oc­cu­pied

with un­der­min­ing Spe­cial Coun­sel Robert Mueller would turn their at­ten­tion to the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has pro­vided no short­age of oc­ca­sions for over­sight. And im­peach­ment, a vir­tual im­pos­si­bil­ity un­der Repub­li­can rule, would be­come a po­ten­tial re­sponse to Mueller’s find­ings.

The pres­i­dent’s at­tempts to pre­vent all that by fo­ment­ing fear and rage among his core sup­port­ers have been ac­com­pa­nied by dark il­lus­tra­tions of the worst pos­si­ble con­se­quences. An avid Trump sup­porter was charged on Oct. 25 with mail­ing at least 15 pipe bombs to prom­i­nent pres­i­den­tial an­tag­o­nists. The next day, a man who sub­scribed to con­spir­acy the­o­ries sur­round­ing the mi­grant car­a­van killed 11 wor­shipers at a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue. Af­ter an awk­ward at­tempt to play the pres­i­den­tial role of uni­fy­ing the pub­lic fol­low­ing the mas­sacre, Trump re­verted to in­flam­ing di­vi­sions with re­newed vigor.

His dom­i­na­tion of me­dia cov­er­age and de­par­ture from long-hon­ored norms have helped com­plete the up­end­ing of the con­ven­tional wis­dom that con­gres­sional elec­tions are largely lo­cal af­fairs with na­tional im­pli­ca­tions. The pres­i­dent who called him­self a “na­tion­al­ist” at a re­cent rally has na­tion­al­ized the elec­tion. “Pre­tend I’m on the bal­lot,” he is telling his fans. That is not the mes­sage many Repub­li­can House can­di­dates might have cho­sen: Polls show that a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers dis­ap­prove of Trump’s per­for­mance and gen­er­ally pre­fer Demo­cratic can­di­dates for Congress.

Thanks to ger­ry­man­der­ing and other struc­tural ad­van­tages, how­ever, Repub­li­cans could lose the over­all vote by a sub­stan­tial mar­gin — and lose seats — with­out los­ing power. That is, if vot­ers don’t de­liver a re­sound­ing enough de­feat of the pres­i­dent and his en­ablers on Tues­day, Trump could once again win with­out win­ning. What would be lost is an in­valu­able chance to cor­rect the coun­try’s way­ward course.

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