The future belongs to the Democrats
Wednesday morning last week, millions of Americans awakened with a sense that our politics might finally settle down.
They were mistaken.
There was ample reason to believe that President Trump’s chaotic presidency would finally be reined in. The day before, Election Day, 114 million Americans went to the polls – record turnout for a midterm election – and delivered the House of Representatives to Democrats with a 7 percent margin. Democrats also picked up governorships and state legislatures, and received about 13 million more votes than Republicans in the Senate; only the vagaries of the political map allowed Republicans to pick up a seat or two.
The message from voters in exit polls was clear: They were, by a lopsided margin, casting their votes to register their disapproval of Trump. They wanted a check on Trump’s excesses.
Trump’s reply to the voters: Go to hell.
Wednesday, Trump held a news conference where he declared the defeat “very close to complete victory.” He threatened to respond to House Democrats’ prospective oversight of his administration by bringing government “to a halt,” going to a “warlike posture.”
Then, after the news conference, he announced that had forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with a Trump loyalist who, it quickly emerged, was unqualified for the job. The move was a clear sign that Trump is planning to squash the independent counsel’s Russia investigation that so far has secured the conviction of several of Trump’s former advisers.
As if that weren’t enough, the White House then revoked the credentials of a CNN correspondent – and justified this by releasing a doctored video falsely purporting to show that the journalist had assaulted a White House aide.
If Trump was chaotic, impulsive, belligerent and divisive during the first two years of his term, he appears determined to be even more so in defeat.
For the newly empowered House Democrats, this presents a choice: Fight Trump head on, or ignore his hysterics and proceed with their own agenda. If they’re smart, they’ll take the latter course.
Democrats prevailed Tuesday because they managed to keep a singular and unrelenting focus on health care – refusing to engage with Trump and his daily distractions. Now, there will be an immediate clamor from the progressive base for impeachment proceedings, for Medicare for All legislation, and for the party to engage in multiple high-profile investigations of Trump. Democrats must resist this clamor, just as they resist Trump’s distractions.
It’s pointless to take up impeachment and single-payer health care and such with Trump in the White House and his sycophants controlling the Senate. This would also jeopardize the people who gave the Democrats their majority – first-term Democrats from swing districts. The majority makers for the Democrats were candidates who, though generally liberal, appealed to moderate voters in suburban districts with non-ideological campaigns. Bernie Sanders-style Democrats lost in several competitive races.
The need to maintain discipline also increases the importance of Nancy Pelosi returning as House speaker. Younger Democrats in the House are growing restless, and the 78-year-old party leader will hopefully satisfy them by announcing that this will be her last term and that she will preside over an orderly transition.
But Pelosi is exceptional at keeping Democrats in line. She could be a merciless disciplinarian this session – forcing her colleagues to focus on issues voters care about, such as health care, economic growth and infrastructure, and cleaning up government.
Tuesday’s results show that the future continues to belong to the Democrats. Young voters and Hispanic voters showed up in large numbers to support them. College-educated women helped to turn the suburbs “blue,” leaving only the rural areas, with their diminishing populations, under Republican dominations. Structural obstacles – an Electoral College and Senate that overrepresents rural areas, and the drawing of district lines in the House to favor Republicans – are preserving Trump’s power for now.
In the long run – 2024 and beyond – Democratic strength will likely overrun those obstacles. That’s no guarantee in 2020, which is why Democrats need to avoid constant quarrels with Trump in the House, and why Democrats need to nominate a presidential candidate in 2020 who doesn’t appear threatening to white, rural voters.
If they can do both of those things, they will regain full control of Congress, and the presidency, two years from now.
Dana Milbank is Op-ed columnist for the Washington Post covering national politics. He graduated from Yale University. He also provides political commentary for various TV outlets, and he is author of three books on politics, including the national bestseller “Homo Politicus.”