As the new year cranks up, bringing with it the election
season, like many others I’ve been pondering the upcoming campaign and the next
four years. At this point, it is impossible to predict how the election will go.
Polling is very close and it is very possible that either side could win.
However, if Donald Trump manages to eke out another victory, it seems likely
that he will fall victim to the law of diminishing returns, a maxim which holds
that, at some point, that the amount of benefit received will become less than
the energy or effort invested.
This law seems likely to apply to Mr. Trump because no one
is seriously predicting an electoral landslide for the incumbent. In fact, the
focus seems to be on determining how much the president can lose the popular
vote by and still manage an Electoral College squeaker. An analysis
by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report last year found that Trump
could increase his popular vote loss margin to 5 million votes (compared with
2.9 million in 2016) and still win the White House IF he wins votes in
the right places.
Imagine, however, what such a win might look like. Even
though Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, his coattails were nonexistent
as Republicans lost two seats in the Senate and six in the House. It is very possible
that another popular vote loss/Electoral College victory could further erode
the Republican position in Congress, even as the GOP maintains control of the White
In both election years, the Senate map favored Democrats. In 2016,
Republicans defended 24 Senate seats while Democrats defended 10. This year,
the margin will be almost identical with Republicans defending 23 seats compared
with 12 for Democrats.
The difference is in the occupant of the White House and
national attitudes about the president’s performance over the past four years.
At this point, the Cook
Political Report lists Republicans with twice as many vulnerable seats
(tossup or lean) as Democrats. Races to watch for control of the Senate include
Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and North Carolina. At this point,
although Democrats stand to gain seats, they would have to run the table to win
control of the Senate.
In the House, the situation is somewhat reversed. Cook rates 18 Democratic districts as tossups compared with only three for
Republicans. Democrats will be defending House gains made in the landslide
election of 2018, which includes many swing districts, so some Republican
pickups are not out of the question. The bad news for Republicans is that,
since Democrats hold a 36-seat advantage, taking back the House seems out of
reach even under the current best-case scenario.
The bottom line is that, if President Trump wins
re-election, it is likely that he will spend the next four years with a Pelosi-led
House and a Senate where Republicans either are a minority or hold a smaller
majority. That would effectively mean an
end to advancing the Trump legislative agenda and the beginning of a four-year
President Trump’s best chance at getting his agenda through Congress
was in his first two years. Republicans held narrow majorities in both the House
and the Senate and the president was more popular than today. Ironically, Mr. Trump’s average
approval rating was at its highest point just after his inauguration in January
2017 at more than 45 percent. Within days, after the new president started
doing things, his approval plunged into the low-40s/high-30s where it has
remained ever since.
It was within this short honeymoon period where President
Trump had his best chance to accomplish his goals. He was only partially
successful. Tax reform passed but a slew of other items, such as Obamacare
reform and funding for the wall, did not. It looks unlikely that Republicans
will have another shot at these issues within the Trump presidency. There will
be no honeymoon if Donal Trump wins in 2020.
Instead, a second Trump Administration would remain a
stalemate, similar to what we’ve seen for the past two years. The Democratic
House will send more bills to the Republican Senate where they languish and die
and vice versa. Unless Trump and the Democrats could reach compromise deals,
something that has been rare so far, policy gains would be mostly limited to executive
The prognosis looks similar if a Democrat wins the presidency.
Barring a wave that builds over the next 10 months, a Democratic president
would contend with a Republican Senate, which would act as a brake on his (or
her) agenda. Despite Democratic talk of Medicare-for-all, raising the minimum
wage, immigration reform, gun control, these and other pie-in-the-sky proposals
would be DOA in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.
Even though we are a month early for Groundhog Day, the next
four years looks a lot like the last two regardless of who wins the White House.
Not everyone would be unhappy with that scenario, however. Voters seem to
prefer divided government, especially when officeholders are out of the mainstream
and pushing forward policies that only cater to the base. In a country as
closely divided as ours, in which neither political party is very popular, the
effect is going to be that the parties will only rarely be rewarded with control
of both houses of Congress and the White House.
As a result, very little will get done in the coming years
unless partisans on both sides can relearn the lost art of compromise and exchange
their demagoguery for reaching across the aisle to build bipartisan majorities.
After years of stalemate, maybe the election of 2020 will usher in officials who
understand that neither party can accomplish much on its own.