U.S. President Donald Trump can always be counted on to put the most positive spin on news involving him, so the last 24 hours found him crowing on Twitter about midterm election results that were “great,” “incredible” and a “Big Win."
No, he’s not entirely wrong. But he’s mostly not right. His Republican Party just lost its hold on one of the three elected branches in Washington. Governing America is once again a two-party business.
Could that spell a new era of conciliation and co-operation on Capitol Hill? In their calmer moments, it’s what most Americans want. Unfortunately, the divided American government is more likely to deliver less light and more heat, with extra servings of antagonism and polarization.
The positive story for Mr. Trump is that the GOP keeps its majority in the Senate until at least 2020. And the Republicans are more than ever his party. A handful of independent-minded conservative senators – people like Jeff Flake of Nevada and Bob Corker of Tennessee – have been replaced by loyalists that Mr. Trump stumped for and helped to elect.
The Senate is the chamber that approves executive appointments and judicial nominations, including any future Supreme Court judges, which means that, for the next two years, the President has a free hand. He won’t have trouble making cabinet changes, or ensuring that his picks end up on the bench. Nor does Mr. Trump have to worry much about the ultimate threat to his presidency: impeachment. It’s not possible without the Senate.
But the House of Representatives is now controlled by a majority of Democrats, and that is guaranteed to make Mr. Trump’s life challenging. The House has the power to subpoena, and Democratic leaders have already said that one of their first orders of business will be to subpoena the President’s tax returns – which, unlike past White House tenants, he has not released. Democrats assume the fillings will reveal a swamp of conflicts of interest, and Mr. Trump’s increasingly contorted excuses for keeping his taxes private only whets their appetite.
A President can largely run foreign policy without having to ask permission of Congress, but he doesn’t have nearly as much of a free hand on domestic policy. Legislation isn’t law until it passes both the House and the Senate. For at least the next two years, that means any and all Republican bills are dead unless they can win over at least some Democrats in the House.
It leaves both parties with a choice between compromise, a creature on Washington’s endangered species list, and gridlock. Bet on the latter. Republicans especially have found that playing to their base, making maximalist demands and refusing to give has been a successful electoral strategy.
But for all that, Tuesday night’s result is one that Americans, and friends of America, should cheer. Voters just put a huge check on the power of a president who badly needs checks, balances and speed bumps. And American voters even offered their politicians some models of moderation and bipartisanship.
For example, in three Republican states – Utah, Nebraska and Idaho – voters approved ballot measures for Medicaid expansion, a provision of the Affordable Care Act that provides state and federal funding for health insurance for low-income Americans. This is part of Obamacare, a program of bare-bones universal health care that Republicans treat as Public Enemy No. 1. In these three red states, even as voters cast ballots overwhelmingly for the GOP, they were also casting ballots for a key part of GOP-opposed Obamacare.
In dependably conservative Utah, voters voted to legalize medical marijuana. In Nevada, voters approved automatic voter registration for anyone with a driver’s license. In Missouri, Colorado and Michigan, voters approved plans to reform redistricting and end electoral gerrymandering.
And in Florida, voters approved a measure that will give full voting rights to most ex-convicts. An estimated six-million Americans cannot vote due to a criminal conviction. The largest number of them, 1.4-million, are in Florida, where anyone convicted of a crime carrying a maximum possible sentence of at least one year in prison is ineligible to vote – for life. On Tuesday, Florida voters backed returning the vote to those who have completed their sentences.
American democracy isn’t perfect. But don’t count it out just yet.