US midterms: Trump could still eye 2020 victory

While he may lose control of the House, Trump still has a path to victory in 2020 if Democrats overplay their hand 

In painting the Democrats as obstructionists, Trump may have more wind in his sails in the run up to 2020 than is being expected
In painting the Democrats as obstructionists, Trump may have more wind in his sails in the run up to 2020 than is being expected

The United States will go to the polls once again in just under a week’s time, with the entire House of Representatives, and just over a third of the US Senate’s seats up for grabs. The parliamentary system in the US grants wide powers to the legislative branch of government, and it has considerable control over investigations and budgetary allocations. In cases where the sitting President’s party also controls both houses of Congress, they are, theoretically, in a position to push through the President’s legislative agenda more quickly. Whilst President Trump has been in such a position since his election in 2016, and except for passing his landmark tax reform law, he has had difficulty making progress on enacting major legislation, which has hampered some of his domestic agenda. 

If analysts and forecasts are to be believed, it will become more difficult after the upcoming election.  

With the 2016 Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s Presidential victory, polls were incorrect in their predictions that both votes would see voters choosing the more moderate option, namely, opting to remain in the EU and selecting Hillary Clinton. In turn, it is worth taking the polls with a pinch of salt.  

Nate Silver, a renowned statistician in the United States, runs a website called FiveThirtyEight, which provides polls and analysis of likely outcomes for various political events based upon other polls, voting trends, and fundraising amongst others. FiveThirtyEight was one of those which had incorrectly assessed Trump’s chances in 2016. But if he were to be correct in his analysis for the 2018 elections, this would give Trump and Republicans quite the headache heading into the second half of his first term as President. Silver is predicting that the Republicans have an 84% chance of retaining the Senate, which is certainly good news for Trump, but he’s also estimating an 85% chance of the Democrats taking control of the House. 

If Democrats were to take control of the House of Representatives, which has all 435 seats up for grabs, it could act as a major impediment to Trump’s legislative agenda. With Trump having only passed one major landmark reform (tax cuts) and failing in several others (funding for the border wall with Mexico, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act being the most prominent), his ability to get any legislation through a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives would be effectively zero, barring any major concessions that he would be willing to make, which would not play well with his political base. It would also limit Trump’s ability to get his agenda funded, as the House is the first legislative branch which votes on funding a President’s priorities. A Democratic House would see scrutiny of the Trump Administration ramped up to new highs, with investigations opening up into his conduct and that of his administration, which would serve to enrage the President further.  

The chances of the Republicans losing the Senate are incredibly remote. Regardless of the outcome in the midterm elections, the Democrats cannot hope to win enough seats in the Senate to guarantee ousting Trump in office through impeachment. Whilst they would need a simple vote (50% + 1) to pass the articles of impeachment through the House, it would require two-thirds of the Senate to remove the sitting President from office – and the Democrats are nowhere near getting those numbers, nor is it likely that they would be able to convince enough Republicans to turn against their President (barring some incredibly damaging revelations that would make the GOP itself look unpalatable to voters in the run up to the 2020 Presidential Election). In short, I remain of the opinion that unless Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 Election yields some irrefutable evidence (which in a post-truth age, the Republicans would still look to discredit), Trump will be President until January 19th, 2021. At the very least. 

The question that remains is what will become of Trump’s Presidency if he is unable to pass legislation through Congress. Looking at his previous strategies, it is likely that he would paint the Democrats as being obstructionists to his agenda, and seek to fuel further anger against the left, stoking the fire just enough to carry him into early 2020 and his Presidential re-election campaign. His Democratic opponents, if successful in taking the House, are likely to throw every obstacle they can find at the White House but will need to be cautious to not overplay their hand – a second Trump victory at the polls in 2020 would leave the Democrats further demoralised, rudderless, and lacking a cadre of leadership figures. On the other hand, his victory would also prop up a Republican Party that, without the larger-than-life figure that is Donald J. Trump, would find themselves just as devoid of individuals with promising leadership qualities that is needed to lead the party after the New Yorker leaves office.  

This could well lead to Trump focusing on achieving more outcomes in his foreign policy initiatives. If the last nearly two years are anything to go by, a considerable amount of energy will be expended on addressing America’s trade deficit, which given its magnitude, cannot be balanced before Trump’s 2020 campaign. But the White House may choose to extend or double down on tariffs against China or the European Union, which would impact them negatively – but will also hurt US citizens and corporations that depend on imports for either consumption or as part of their production along a longer supply chain. This would negatively impact US economic growth in the backend of Trump’s first term and would make his re-election all that more challenging.  

Trump’s foreign policy initiatives, to date, have been a mix of aggressive posturing and disrupting the global balance of power, bringing into question the multilateral system established after the end of the Second World War. In the absence of any space to make meaningful progress on his domestic agenda, Trump would push his foreign policy hard, likely bringing about more disruption and uncertainty, but also perhaps some tangible results. The midterms have the potential to provide some frustrating results, but in painting the Democrats as obstructionists, and making any meaningful progress on foreign policy issues like trade or North Korea, Trump may have more wind in his sails in the run up to 2020 than is being expected.  

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