Gerry Man­der is in da House

Far from be­ing Trump’s near-“com­plete vic­tory”, the midterms mean op­por­tu­ni­ties for rig­ging US elec­toral bound­aries have swung back to­wards the Democrats.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Paul Thomas

There was a blue wave in the US midterm elec­tions. It wasn’t tidal but nor was it a rip­ple. (They do things dif­fer­ently in Amer­ica: the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans are the red party; the cen­tre-left Democrats are the blue party.) Not­with­stand­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s com­pul­sive self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment and decades-long as­sault on the con­cept of ob­jec­tive truth, his claim that the midterms were “very close to a com­plete vic­tory” for the Repub­li­cans must have per­plexed the party’s num­ber-crunch­ers. The Democrats took con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and should end up gain­ing about 40 seats, their best per­for­mance for 44 years. They also won seven gov­er­nor­ships and close to 400 state leg­isla­tive seats, thereby flip­ping eight leg­isla­tive cham­bers. On the back of win­ning the pop­u­lar vote by 7%, the Democrats took full con­trol of state govern­ments in Colorado, Illi­nois, Maine, New Mex­ico, New York and Ne­vada, gained a share of power in Kansas, Michi­gan and New Hamp­shire and ended Repub­li­can su­per-ma­jori­ties in Michi­gan, North Carolina and Penn­syl­va­nia.

Given the na­ture of the 35 seats in play, win­ning the Sen­ate was al­ways likely to be a bridge too far. The Repub­li­cans may well in­crease their ma­jor­ity in the up­per cham­ber, although the fi­nal re­sult hinges on a few very tight races, notably in Florida, which looks set for the sort of lawyers’ ben­e­fit that fol­lowed the “hang­ing chads” fi­asco in the state’s 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion vote count and ul­ti­mately de­liv­ered the pres­i­dency to Ge­orge W Bush.

As polling guru Nate Sil­ver pointed out, the 2018 elec­toral map bears a much closer re­sem­blance to 2012, when Barack Obama de­feated Mitt Rom­ney, than 2016, when Trump over­came Hil­lary Clin­ton. Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin, the states that ef­fec­tively sent Trump to the White House, moved em­phat­i­cally back into the blue col­umn: the Democrats won Michi­gan by 7%, Wis­con­sin by 8% and

Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin, the states that sent Trump to the White House, moved em­phat­i­cally back to the Democrats.

Penn­syl­va­nia by 10%. Their strong show­ing in the sun belt may have opened up a new front in 2020, with the re­sults sug­gest­ing that Ari­zona, North Carolina, Texas and per­haps even Ge­or­gia can no longer be con­sid­ered Repub­li­can bankers.

Where there was a sense of let-down, it re­flected a yearn­ing for a seis­mic event that would’ve turned US pol­i­tics on its head and left Trump a cornered rat in a gilded cage. The yearn­ing was un­der­stand­able but un­re­al­is­tic in that it didn’t take into ac­count the coun­try’s po­lar­i­sa­tion, Trump’s hold over his base and an elec­toral play­ing field tilted in the Repub­li­cans’ favour.

THE HOME OF THE GER­RY­MAN­DER

The Sen­ate, in which Alaska (es­ti­mated 2017 pop­u­la­tion 739, 795) has as many rep­re­sen­ta­tives as Cal­i­for­nia (es­ti­mated 2017 pop­u­la­tion 39.54 mil­lion) is the ul­ti­mate ger­ry­man­der: a key in­sti­tu­tion at the heart of govern­ment in which sparsely pop­u­lated, ru­ral states – old, white, re­li­gious, con­ser­va­tive Amer­ica – ex­er­cise power and in­flu­ence out of all pro­por­tion to their size and con­tri­bu­tion.

The Democrats’ suc­cess in state-level races po­si­tions them to have a de­ci­sive say in the elec­toral “re­dis­trict­ing” that takes place ev­ery 10 years fol­low­ing the cen­sus. The next cen­sus is in 2020. As USA To­day put it, “With Demo­cratic can­di­dates for gov­er­nor and state law­maker win­ning in sev­eral key states, the party broke the mo­nop­o­lies that re­drew the po­lit­i­cal map af­ter the 2010 cen­sus – maps that have given the GOP an ad­van­tage in ev­ery elec­tion in the years since.”

Ear­lier this year, the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court struck down the Repub­li­can map drawn up af­ter the last cen­sus and drew its own. In these midterms, the Democrats won dis­tricts in Penn­syl­va­nia they hadn’t won since 2010.

The loss of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives means the ca­pac­ity for Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans to run in­ter­fer­ence for Trump by slow walk­ing, stone-walling or sim­ply ig­nor­ing at­tempts to hold him to ac­count is sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ished.

There’s no bet­ter il­lus­tra­tion of a party’s abil­ity to use chair­man­ships of and ma­jori­ties on key House com­mit­tees to hound their op­po­nents than the Beng­hazi in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In 2012, Is­lamist mili­tias at­tacked two US diplo­matic com­pounds in Beng­hazi, Libya. Two US diplo­mats and two CIA con­trac­tors were killed. At­tacks on Amer­i­can diplo­matic posts are noth­ing new: in the 20 years be­fore the Beng­hazi in­ci­dents, there’d been 21 ma­jor as­saults on US diplo­matic out­posts, not one of which was deemed to war­rant a Con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

But the Repub­li­cans saw an op­por­tu­nity to put the heat on Hil­lary Clin­ton, who was Sec­re­tary of State at the time and the pre­sump­tive 2016 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. They con­vened a se­lect com­mit­tee whose in­ves­ti­ga­tion lasted longer than those into Pearl Har­bour, the Iran-Con­tra scan­dal, 9/11 and the in­tel­li­gence fail­ures and de­ceit that paved the way for the in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq.

You could say the in­ves­ti­ga­tion went nowhere in that it failed to un­earth any ev­i­dence of dere­lic­tion of duty, wrong­do­ing or even back­side cov­er­ing, be­yond the Wash­ing­ton norm, on Clin­ton’s part. That would be to miss the point: it wasn’t an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it was a de­lib­er­ately pro­tracted show trial with the de­clared aim of crip­pling Clin­ton’s can­di­dacy. With a lit­tle help from Clin­ton and her friends, fair-weather and oth­er­wise, and the me­dia who cov­ered the process as if it was some­thing other than an ob­vi­ous trav­esty, it by and large suc­ceeded.

The only sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the Beng­hazi in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee’s probe into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion and pos­si­ble col­lu­sion with the Trump cam­paign is that in both cases the Repub­li­cans pre­de­ter­mined the out­come and were un­trou­bled by the brazen cyn­i­cism of the ex­er­cise. Thus, in April, the in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, chaired by Trump lick­spit­tle Devin Nunes, con­cluded that there was no ev­i­dence of col­lu­sion, case closed.

Democrats on the com­mit­tee dis­sented, none more vo­cif­er­ously than Adam Schiff, who is poised to suc­ceed Nunes when the new Congress con­venes in Jan­uary. Schiff has stated that his top pri­or­ity will be to re­vive the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and ex­pand it to look into whether Rus­sia has lever­age over Trump via his busi­ness em­pire. Trump-watch­ers have long spec­u­lated that he was able to bounce back from mul­ti­ple bank­rupt­cies by al­low­ing Trump Inc to be­come a money-laun­der­ing op­er­a­tion for the Rus­sian mafia.

House Democrats have also de­clared their in­ten­tion to de­mand Trump’s tax re­turns from the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. They could prob­a­bly do that be­cause they can do just about any­thing: de­mand any doc­u­ment, sum­mon any wit­ness, ask any ques­tion. Trump has ob­fus­cated over why he hasn’t re­leased his tax re­turns like ev­ery other pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in the past 40 years, even though, in re­cent his­tory, no ma­jor US po­lit­i­cal fig­ure’s tax re­turns were more per­ti­nent and publi­ca­tion more em­phat­i­cally in the pub­lic in­ter­est. His lat­est ex­cuse is that “peo­ple wouldn’t un­der­stand them”. I sus­pect the Democrats are pre­pared to take that risk.

The Repub­li­cans’ ca­pac­ity to run in­ter­fer­ence for Trump by slow walk­ing, stone-walling or sim­ply ig­nor­ing at­tempts to hold him to ac­count is sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ished.

Trump will, of course, fight fire with fire. He has re­peat­edly demon­strated that he views run-of-the-mill crit­i­cism, pub­lic protest and the demo­cratic sys­tem’s checks and bal­ances as dis­re­spect­ful af­fronts, bor­der­ing on trea­son. His be­hav­iour vir­tu­ally con­firms the as­sump­tion that he has some­thing, per­haps lots of things, to hide; his ca­reer is lit­tered with re­minders that he’ll go to ex­treme lengths to avoid be­ing held to ac­count.

His first act af­ter the midterms was to sack At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, an early Trump booster who made the mis­take of act­ing on Jus­tice Depart­ment ad­vice that he should re­cuse him­self from over­sight of spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in the elec­tion. For Trump, loy­alty flows up­wards and essen­tially en­tails a will­ing­ness to do what­ever it takes to pro­tect him. Ses­sions was re­placed by Matt Whi­taker, a man­i­festly un­qual­i­fied con­ser­va­tive ide­o­logue whose pub­lic crit­i­cisms of the Mueller probe of­ten echoed @ re­alDon­aldTrump.

The cause and ef­fect be­hind Ses­sions’ dis­missal af­ter months of pub­lic dis­par­age­ment and Whi­taker’s ap­point­ment are so ob­vi­ous that they might amount to ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. Some lawyers, in­clud­ing Repub­li­cans such as Trump coun­sel­lor Kellyanne Con­way’s hus­band, Ge­orge, be­lieve Whi­taker’s ap­point­ment is un­con­sti­tu­tional since he hasn’t been ap­proved by the Sen­ate.

Not that Trump gives a damn. He in­stinc­tively grasps that a cer­tain sort of per­son, heav­ily rep­re­sented in his base, finds his dis­dain for pro­to­col, con­ven­tion and rules – writ­ten and un­writ­ten – ex­hil­a­rat­ing, whereas a dif­fer­ent sort of per­son, heav­ily rep­re­sented in the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment and main­stream me­dia, is dumb­founded and dis­mayed by his abil­ity to break ev­ery rule and get away with it.

With a sur­vival in­stinct honed by decades of push­ing le­gal and ac­count­ing en­velopes, Trump senses that pol­i­tics of­fers his last, best hope of get­ting away clean. There’s an irony here since he clearly de­spises the demo­cratic process, doesn’t en­joy be­ing Pres­i­dent and, deep down, prob­a­bly rues the day he de­cided to get semi-se­ri­ous about run­ning for the of­fice.

If he hadn’t be­come Pres­i­dent, he wouldn’t be fac­ing Mueller’s and fu­ture in­ves­ti­ga­tions. He could’ve car­ried on with his schemes and scams and re­al­ity-show ex­is­tence with­out up­right pub­lic ser­vants and po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies want­ing to shine a light into ev­ery dark nook and cranny of Trump­World.

PRES­I­DEN­TIAL RAIN CHECK

Last week­end, in France, Trump showed that he re­gards even the cer­e­mo­nial as­pects of his role as bur­den­some. Imag­ine the out­pour­ing of right-wing dis­gust if Obama had skipped a wreath-lay­ing cer­e­mony at a mil­i­tary ceme­tery be­cause he didn’t fancy get­ting wet. It’s hardly sur­pris­ing, there­fore, that he has no in­ter­est in govern­ment or pol­icy. A Politico re­view of his sched­ule for the week Oc­to­ber 22 to 26 found that he spent a grand to­tal of two hours in pol­icy dis­cus­sions. Obama spent six or seven hours a day in pol­icy meet­ings. Trump’s work­ing days be­gan late morn­ing and up to nine hours a day were set aside for what’s termed “ex­ec­u­tive time” – time spent tweet­ing, phon­ing friends and watch­ing tele­vi­sion.

But Trump can’t walk away be­cause he’d lose the le­gal priv­i­leges and abil­ity to in­flu­ence pub­lic opin­ion the pres­i­dency con­fers. His over­rid­ing im­per­a­tive is the op­po­site – stay in of­fice as long as pos­si­ble – hence he’s al­ready run­ning for re-elec­tion. Spend­ing the next two years in semi-per­ma­nent cam­paign mode will mean ab­ro­gat­ing his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, abus­ing the of­fice and rip­ping off the tax­payer, but needs must when the devil drives.

If he wins in 2020, he’ll de­ploy the de­fence used by Bill Clin­ton and his sup­port­ers dur­ing the Mon­ica Lewin­sky scan­dal: that by re-elect­ing some­one they had ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve was a se­rial adul­terer, the Amer­i­can peo­ple made it clear they didn’t care about his sex­ual in­dis­cre­tions.

Then he’ll hun­ker down, us­ing the pow­ers of the pres­i­dency to ob­struct, de­lay, frus­trate and sab­o­tage in­ves­ti­ga­tions on the not un­rea­son­able as­sump­tion that, when he fi­nally leaves the White House, his pur­suers and the na­tion will be ex­hausted and/or thor­oughly sick of the whole busi­ness: no mat­ter how many of the is­sues and con­tro­ver­sies swirling around him are un­re­solved, there’ll be lit­tle ap­petite for pur­su­ing a 781/ year-old couch po­tato.

The midterms re­sults sug­gest it won’t be easy to pull off.

Trump can’t walk away be­cause he’d lose the le­gal priv­i­leges and abil­ity to in­flu­ence pub­lic opin­ion the pres­i­dency con­fers – hence he’s al­ready run­ning for re-elec­tion.

il­lus­tra­tion by AN­THONY EL­LI­SON

Matt Whi­taker: Mueller probe critic.

Left to right, Hil­lary Clin­ton is grilled over the Beng­hazi at­tack; New York­ers op­pose Matt Whi­taker’s ap­point­ment; Adam Schiff; Vladimir Putin.

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