After Midterms, Dems Should Treat Trump the Way GOP Treated Obama

The Republicans won by making every election a referendum on Obama. Dems can rebuild, advance liberalism, by doing the same.


The peerless Ed Kilgore offered this important reminder yesterday about the essential nature of midterm elections: they don’t have much to do with the person sitting in the Oval Office. They have almost everything to do with his party.

Yes, Democrats hope for a wave. Yes, this president is particularly unpopular. But with rare exception, the party in control of the presidency tends to lose control of the House, maybe the Senate, too. There are been three—yes, three—times when this has not been true, and those were for equally exceptional reasons. Ed writes:

So had Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or John Kasich won in 2016, we’d almost certainly be looking at a very good Democratic midterm performance this year, albeit probably one with lower levels of fear and anger among the Democratic voters flocking to the polls.

Ed goes on to imagine what the 2018 midterms would have looked like had Democrat Hillary Clinton won the presidency. In short, it would have been a bloodbath, and that fact inspires me to take this conversation in another direction.

Recall the 2016 election took place in the context of President Obama’s war of attrition with the Republicans. Once the GOP took the House in 2010, no meaningful piece of legislation got through unless it had something to do with funding or starving the beast of government. For a brief moment, Obama believed he could strike a “grand bargain,” but around 2013, he realized the Republicans were not interested in deal-making—indeed, he realized the point of obstruction was obstruction itself. So he stopped trying and started doing the one thing he could: using executive power.

Now, going into the 2016 election, no reasonable person could have surveyed this scorched landscape to conclude a President Hillary Clinton would have done better. Even then, we knew the GOP would keep control of the House, and all things being equal, they would have treated her the same way they treated Obama, only instead of fighting a black man in power they would have been fighting a woman. Every election—for US Senator or local dog catcher—would have been a referendum on President Clinton. For the GOP, winning or losing 2016 was actually a win-win.

Because of the GOP’s campaign of Massive Resistance, the best a President Clinton could have done is maintain Obama’s success with health care, bank reform, the Iran deal, and the Paris accords. But, importantly, she could have maintained, or expanded, Obama’s executive actions, which were the most progressive actions in my lifetime. Given threats to block Supreme Court nominees, the only real progress a President Clinton could have made would have been limited to the stroke of a pen.

All of this is to say the best any reasonable person could have expected from a Clinton presidency was holding the line—defending Obama’s successes and minimizing GOP advances, while trying to make small-bore progress via the federal bureaucracy. Meanwhile, however, the Republicans would have pounded away on Clinton, just as they pounded away on Obama, thus winning the midterms of 2018 and thus increasing their hold not only in the Congress, but, importantly, on state and local governments. In other words, winning 2016, for the Democrats, might have been losing.

None of the above happened, of course, but all of the above is a model for how the Democrats can hold the line in ways a President Clinton could not: by blocking, once they take the House, every piece of legislation Donald Trump wants. Better yet, by extracting bigly while giving the president mere tokens—like money for a fence.

More important than extraction is advancing party interests from the ground up by using Trump the same way the GOP used Obama: making every election—for US Senator or local dog catcher—a referendum on Trump. But unlike a President Clinton, Trump offers real scandals to campaign on, scandals so massive virtually any reasonable person can look on any Democratic candidate not as a partisan but as an opportunity to restore respect for the law, for democratic norms, and for decency.

All things being equal, the president is likely to continue to tarnish the Republican brand, alienate friends, enrage enemies and outrage people generally—all of which can be harnessed with the aim of advancing the cause of liberalism and meeting the demands of a 21st century America undergoing seismic demographic change.

Old rich conservative white voters found their last champion in Donald Trump (probably), but like the champions of old, the higher this president rises, the harder his party falls. For the Democrats, losing 2016 might turn out to be a win.


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