Okay, assume that $5 billion later, the midterms play out pretty much as everyone has expected for the last two years: Democrats take the House of Representatives (and a clutch of governorships) and Republicans keep the Senate. What happens next? What happens when someone who is biologically incapable of acknowledging error faces the result of an election where—if the probable becomes real—the character and conduct of the president was in fact the overwhelming reason for Republicans losing their stranglehold on Congress?
If history were a guide there would first be some humility. When the GOP lost the House and Senate in 2006, President George W. Bush called it a “thumpin’. When Democrats lost more than 60 seats in the House in 2010, President Obama called it a “shellacking.” After that would likely come some roll-up-the-sleeves cooperation between a chastened but realistic White House and a newly ascendant opposition. After all, that’s what happened with Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Truman, notwithstanding his denunciation of the “do-nothing 80th Congress!”, worked with Republicans to shape a bipartisan post-war foreign policy. Reagan worked with Tip O’Neill, Dick Gephardt in the House and Senator Bill Bradley to hammer out deals on Social Security and tax reform. (Note to Republicans: that tax reform deal raised the capital gains tax to match the tax on ordinary income and closed or slashed a passel of loopholes that benefitted high-income earners.). Clinton, even as his re-election campaign assailed the “Dole-Gingrich” Congress, joined his adversaries on matters from welfare reform to budgets.
But this is where present-day reality forces us to throw all that history out the window. Can anyone who has watched Trump over the past three-plus years reasonably expect a man who considers himself the greatest president ever would reconsider his standing? The far greater likelihood is that he will take credit for saving the Senate and insist that any Republicans who did win their House races got there because he carried them over the line, while the ones who lost would have been beaten worse if not for his intervention.
The more likely question, itself unprecedented, is whether the conspiracy-promoting president will regard the results themselves as legitimate. If Trump still believes that millions of votes from illegal aliens deprived him of a popular vote victory in 2016, the odds are good that his Election Day tweets will recycle stories of non-citizens, caravan invaders or MS-13 gangsters casting countless illegal votes. His post-election response may well echo that of Charles Foster Kane when he responded to an election loss with a front-page banner headline on his “Inquirer”: “FRAUD AT THE POLLS!”
More significant, Trump has been unique among presidents for his indifference, even hostility, to expanding his reach. In his campaign rallies, he has defined Democrats not as opponents, but as enemies. He doesn’t charge them with embracing bad policies; he accuses them of wanting to see crime and joblessness increase. As he focuses obsessively with his 2020 re-election prospects, his root impulse to stoke his base makes outreach to Democrats hard to imagine. (Remember, this is the president who, in the midst of bomb threats and a massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, decided not to “tone down” his rhetoric because adoring crowds at his rallies demanded red meat). While he may offer words of encouragement on, say, infrastructure, the lifespan of such sentiments will be even shorter than it was a year ago when he spoke similar words to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
But it is not only a stubborn and combative president that makes prospects of a post-midterm detente so unlikely. Consider what a Democratic House majority will look like. The new members’ ideologies will likely range from Democratic socialist to ardently centrist, with pressure from the base to resist Trump at every turn. The incoming committee chairs are veteran members with a strongly liberal tilt, and with a clear appetite to begin using their power to investigate everything from possible Russian collusion to ethical and financial misdeeds. Manhattan’s Jerry Nadler would chair the Judiciary Committee. Adam Schiff, whose near-daily broadsides attacking Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes have made him a CNN regular, would take over that committee, while Elijah Cummings would chair the House Oversight Committee. Even if impeachment does not move front and center, the opening weeks of the next Congress will see a blizzard of subpoenas summoning cabinet officers, Trump family members and officials from his presidential campaign to face grilling from a majority that has been stewing for two years over purported misdeeds. If Trump has been in non-stop campaign mode for 2020, you can bet an emboldened Democratic party will be equally focused on maximizing its advantage for the next presidential election. This does not portend an atmosphere where cooperation will bloom.
Nor should we forget the likely makeup of Republican caucus. The most endangered Republican incumbents come from the steadily shrinking pool of (relative) moderates. From Leonard Lance in New Jersey to Mike Coffman in Colorado to Erik Paulsen in Minnesota to Rod Blum in Iowa, GOP incumbents with moderate voting records are in dire straits—and that’s before counting those who decided not to seek re-election at all. What this means is that the next congress’s House Republican caucus will be significantly more right-leaning than this one. It means the Freedom Caucus will be stronger, even if it can’t pick the next speaker. It means a GOP caucus that will likely howl at any move the president might make toward cooperation with a Democratic majority.
There is, I concede, one alternative hypothesis, which goes right back to the president. There is no fixed star to his political views (other than that “others”— immigrants and foreign leaders—are malevolent dangers to the United States). And there is nothing more central to his self-image than that he never makes a mistake and that when something bad happens, it’s somebody else’s fault. It’s possible that he will lash out at the Republicans in congress for a midterm defeat; indeed, he’s already taken a shot at departing Speaker Paul Ryan for challenging Trump’s constitutionally suspect view of birthright citizenship. It is conceivable that in a fit of pique, Trump will make temporary peace with Democrats on a bill to, say, lower drug prices or begin his long-promised infrastructure program. But that’s still more of a remote possibility than a plausible reality.
Yes, history says presidents who preside over midterm losses reset their compasses and find a way to work with their adversaries. Sometimes they produce real and lasting results. But if 2016 taught us anything it’s to embrace the cautionary note in those TV ads from Wall Street companies: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”