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Donald Trump’s Diminishing Returns

The president missed his best chance to effect change. Now, a stalemate looks likely no matter who wins.

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 House.

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 holding action.

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 actions.

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.

Nah.

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