First ‘pre-mortem’ of 2018


Amer­i­can vot­ers, al­most in­vari­ably dis­sat­is­fied with the po­lit­i­cal sta­tus quo, gen­er­ally en­dorse change. In 2016, Don­ald Trump was cer­tainly the can­di­date of change, and Hil­lary Clin­ton, seek­ing a third con­sec­u­tive Demo­cratic term in the White House, rep­re­sented con­ti­nu­ity. Vot­ers’ en­thu­si­asm for change, in the ab­stract, of­ten cools when they’re ac­tu­ally con­fronted with the spe­cific changes that the win­ning change can­di­date seeks to im­pose once in of­fice.

Re­call the smash­ing and his­toric 2008 vic­tory of the clas­sic change agent, Demo­crat Barack Obama, who, as pres­i­dent and with his party in con­trol of both the House and the Se­nate, pushed hard — and even­tu­ally suc­cess­fully — to en­act na­tional health care, which his party had long cham­pi­oned but which had never been re­al­is­tic as long as Repub­li­cans con­trolled at least one side of Capi­tol Hill. Dur­ing the 2010 midterm elec­tions, vot­ers, un­sure about the econ­omy and the ac­tual changes wrought, gave Pres­i­dent Obama only a 44 per­cent fa­vor­able job rat­ing and took 63 House seats — and the ma­jor­ity — away from the Democrats.

Pres­i­dents whose party con­trols both the House and the Se­nate have been reg­u­larly hum­bled by midterm elec­tion vot­ers. In his first midterm, Demo­crat Bill Clin­ton, with a 46 per­cent fa­vor­able job rat­ing af­ter hav­ing failed to pass his health care plan and en­act­ing a deficit re­duc­tion law that raised taxes on the wealth­i­est Amer­i­cans, lost 54 House seats and the House and Se­nate ma­jori­ties his party had held for 40 con­sec­u­tive years. The re-elected Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, hav­ing been forced to aban­don his lim­ited So­cial Se­cu­rity pri­va­ti­za­tion plan and with vot­ers ques­tion­ing his com­pe­tency, watched as his Repub­li­can Party lost 55 House seats cu­mu­la­tively in 2006 and ‘08, when his job rat­ing fell to 25 per­cent pos­i­tive.

Even the vaunted Gip­per, Ron­ald Rea­gan, who car­ried 44 states and 49 states in backto-back pres­i­den­tial land­slides, was bur- dened in his first midterm. With a 13.6 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate, a 42 per­cent fa­vor­able job rat­ing and vot­ers’ anx­i­ety about changes he cham­pi­oned, Repub­li­cans lost 26 House seats, which the mi­nor­ity party could ill af­ford.

All of which brings us to Vir­ginia in 2017, which was Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s first taste of a midterm elec­tion of sorts. Vir­ginia is no longer a hot­bed of so­cial rest where res­i­dents suf­fer­ing from ter­mi­nal nos­tal­gia speak about Mr. Jef­fer­son and Mr. Madi­son as though they were out on a cof­fee break and ex­pected back shortly. Vir­ginia, like the na­tion, has changed. Echo­ing the na­tion­al­ist-na­tivist rhetoric of Trump, the GOP gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date, a hereto­fore es­tab­lish­ment Washington Repub­li­can, man­aged to de­liver 80 per­cent of the one-third of the Vir­ginia elec­torate that is Latino, Asian or African-Amer­i­can to his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, who car­ried Vir­ginia by a mar­gin more than two times larger than Pres­i­dent Obama’s 2012 mar­gin.

Hav­ing, by overt hos­til­ity, alien­ated Vir­ginia’s mi­nor­ity vot­ers, the GOP nom­i­nee needed to win 67 per­cent of the white vote to pre­vail; he came up 10 points short.

The early re­turns of 2018 can al­ready be seen in the flurry of re­tire­ment an­nounce­ments from Repub­li­can House mem­bers. In its day-to-day op­er­a­tion, the U.S. House is re­lent­lessly un­demo­cratic. The ma­jor­ity party runs ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing all the com­mit­tees, the sched­ule of what bills ever see the light of day and all the rules. Be­ing in the House mi­nor­ity is not fun. The re­tire­ment of GOP House mem­bers in­di­cates their wide­spread, mostly whis­pered, be­lief that in next Novem­ber’s midterms, when Trump’s fa­vor­able job rat­ing will al­most cer­tainly be closer to Bush’s low point than ei­ther Obama’s or Clin­ton’s, Repub­li­cans will take a pasting and the Democrats will win back the House ma­jor­ity they lost to the tea party-en­er­gized GOP in 2010. His­tory gives us this pre­view.


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