1. The Democrats are alive.
Their principal objective was to capture the House — and they did. A lot of analysts have questioned the margin — currently a gain of 32 seats that may edge up to 35 — but the fact is that earlier in this decade few ever expected the Democrats to win the House back under the re-districting engineered by the Red Wave of the 2010 midterm election. The Democrats conquered that cliff, driven by Trump’s unpopularity in the metros and suburbs across the country, from the Northeast to Virginia to Pennsylvania to Kansa, Colorado and California, and the wave of Republican retirements (over 40) that reached all the way to Speaker Ryan. The national vote for the House (as of Sunday night) was 53.3 million Democratic votes cast against 48.3 million Republican. And the House result reflected that. What that means, given the overall strength of the economy, is that most voters wanted to register their concern over the direction of the country, and the divisiveness that Trump has relentlessly prosecuted, by putting an institutional check on his power. This actually restores what is more normal in modern American politics: in the 51 years from Richard Nixon’s presidency through to the end of Trump’s current term, 1969-2020, divided government, with different parties controlling the White House and at least one House of Congress, has been in place for 34 of those years. And in only eight of those years did one party have the trifecta of controlling the White House, House and Senate. The Constitution is a celebration of checks and balances, and the American people tend to turn towards it regularly. For all the analysis that concludes the Democrats fell short of historic margins of midterm change, the true question to assess is: “After these midterms, is Trump stronger or weaker?” To ask the question is to answer it.
2. Republicans more than held their own in the Senate.
States where the Trump base is really dug in — North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana — sent their Democratic senators packing. It’s a tribute to Trump’s strategy for those states. But Montana and West Virginia held firm for their Democratic senators, and Republicans had zero traction in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Democrats earlier in the year looked vulnerable. The net Republican Senate gain of 1-2 gives Trump and Leader McConnell a bigger buffer — and they are very pleased with that result.
3. The President is angry
Even as he spurned his predecessors, who, when faced with similar setbacks, were honest enough to call them a “thumping” (Bush, 2006) and a “shellacking,” (Obama, 2010), Trump celebrated what he termed “very close to a complete victory.” But his mood in his post-midterm press conferences has been dark, angry and ugly: chastising Republicans who lost (and had the temerity to demur on his ”embrace”) and lashing out viciously at the media, and has gone out of his way to criticise African American journalists. Why? Because he is weaker, and his presidency will not be the same again. Trump has lost his monopoly on the narrative in Washington; already Democratic voices are getting much more coverage, and Trump is their target. This has only just started. Trump knows this, and is not happy.
4. More upheaval at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The firing of the Attorney General was just the (unsurprising) start. There is much more to come, likely involving the Secretaries of Interior, Commerce, Homeland Security, and possibly Defense. A new UN Ambassador is to be named. The calibre of these appointments will need to be very high if Trump is to manage exceptionally hostile confirmation hearings. There will also be more changes to the White House staff, including possibly the chief, John Kelly.
5. This week’s cautionary tale:
The Democrats got what they wanted: the House. If they squander their victory in an ugly caucus battle over leadership, with their ranks divided and their leaders wounded as a result, their effectiveness as an opposition will be compromised from the outset in January. The logical — and correct — answer is for Nancy Pelosi to become Speaker with a pledge that she will serve but one more term and immediately begin work on generational change and succession for the Democrats in the House in two years’ time. That will resolve what must be done, and give Democrats the most experienced, capable and cunning leader they have — a Speaker who will ruthlessly guide the Democrats in the House in battle against Trump.