The significance of the US midterm elections


Sunday, November 04, 2018

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No midterm elections in the United States have attracted as much attention as those to be held on Tuesday. They have already smashed all previous records in terms of fund-raising, voter registration, early voting turnout, and the proportion of women running for office.

The stakes are high. President Donald Trump has enjoyed the benefit of Republican control of both Houses of Congress, but that is now at risk. The party of incumbent presidents has controlled both Houses of Congress for only 16 of the last 50 years.

Democratic control of one or both Houses of Congress would be Trump's worst nightmare, stymieing his legislative programme and exposing him to subpoena-powered investigations and, possibly, even impeachment proceedings. Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush who, for their entire time in office, had to work with a Congress that their party did not fully control, were far more adept at the art of the deal and reaching compromise with their opponents than Trump's abrasive nature will ever allow him to be.

Election issues

How voters cast their ballots is invariably determined through the interaction of different emotional impulses: hope, optimism, anger and fear. The issues that are likely to influence voters in these midterm elections run the full gamut and have not narrowed.

Trump has claimed credit for a booming economy, which normally results in strong voter endorsement. That claim is par for the political course, although the economic boom actually started under Barack Obama and accounted for his high approval rating when he left office. Trump, I am sure, would be unwilling to acknowledge the fact that the 4.1 million jobs created during his first 21 months in office are less than the 4.5 million created in the last 21 months of Obama's tenure.

There is no doubt, however, that Trump's tax cuts, roll-back of regulations, and his tariff protection of American businesses have added spurt to the economy, even if only in the short term, after it had slowed toward the end of Obama's tenure. The burgeoning budget deficit and public debt, the negative effects of a trade war, the growing disparity in incomes, and the long-term damage to the environment will only come into play in subsequent elections.

But the strong performance of the economy, with unemployment at its lowest level in almost 50 years, does not seem to be guaranteeing Republican victories to the extent that would normally be expected. Concerns about health care, immigration, low wages and social security are also in play, as is the issue of abortion rights that is certain to be returned to the Supreme Court now that it has a solid conservative majority.

The recent pipe bomb mailings targeting some of Trump's prominent critics and the slaughter of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, ostensibly triggered by a belief that Jews are aiding and abetting the approaching caravan of Central American migrants, are bound to bring into sharp focus the impact that Trump's frequent divisive and inflammatory rhetoric may be having on the toxicity of the political environment and the extent to which this cradles extremist behaviour.

The migrant caravan is an early Christmas gift to Trump who has used it in an attempt to scare the daylights out of gullible voters. Tuesday will tell how effective that has been and the impact it has had on voter inclinations.

Trump is on the ballot

However, what seems to be topping the list of issues in these midterm elections is Trump himself — his performance, style, temperament and behaviour. This cuts both ways. Trump has built a cult-like base of support in a way that no other American politician in recent memory has done. For Trumpers disgusted with the political establishment, he is exactly what the doctor ordered — a live, no-nonsense, in-your-face wrecking ball. This has energised a significant segment of the American population who feel that American politics no longer accommodates their values and that their concerns, whether legitimate or reprehensible, have been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.

Trump's most inappropriate remarks still elicit thunderous applause and chants at his political rallies. With John McCain gone, the conscience of the Republican party is in free-float. Republican candidates who previously opposed Trump and whom he publicly humiliated have had to cosy up to him for the support of his base. Democratic candidates in states where his support is concentrated have had to temper their criticism of him. On the other hand, to mainstream Democrats and a significant portion of other large demographic groups — women, younger and suburban voters, in particular — Trump is a dangerous, unguided missile that must be contained.

Political culture

As a distant observer of American politics, I have reflected on how far we in Jamaica have come in our political culture, despite all our shortcomings. No political leader could survive in Jamaica if he behaved like Trump — bragging about his power to grope women's genitals, mocking the disabled, celebrating the physical assault on a journalist, encouraging the beating up of protesters, disparaging the facial features of his opponents, or exhibiting such habitual estrangement from the truth — a pattern of behaviour that was on display even before he was elected.

I find it inexplicable that President Trump did not bother to call President Obama or President Clinton to express his concern and provide assurance regarding the explosive devices that were mailed to them, allegedly by one of his sycophants.

I recall that a few weeks before the 1980 election in Jamaica, Prime Minister Michael Manley, after being unable to reach me by phone, called Hugh Shearer to inform him that the Special Branch had advised him that there was a credible threat on my life, and he had instructed that I be provided with round the clock protection. By the following morning, three police personnel reported for duty.

What the midterm results will mean

A Republican victory in the Senate and House would not only enable Trump to consolidate his hold on power but would validate, at least in his own mind and those of his supporters, the manner in which he has conducted his presidency with all its bewildering quirks, pomposity, dysfunctionality and unpredictability. It would certainly inflate his ego and embolden him, if that is at all possible, making him even more impervious to sound advice and well-intentioned attempts to restrain him, and enhancing his prospects of re-election in 2020.

On the other hand, a Democratic victory in either or both Houses would turn the separation of powers into a real conflict of powers. Not since the public anger toward the Vietnam War has America been so bitterly divided. Trump has promoted and exploited that division in order to fire up his base and that polarisation, in the context of a Democratic victory, would have a debilitating effect on the functioning of the Government. Hot button issues like healthcare, immigration, entitlements and budget appropriations would be mired in dispute. The 2020 campaign would be on in earnest long before Christmas.

Divided government in America is not necessarily a bad thing, to the extent that it constrains excesses and induces compromise and consensus in the way that the founding fathers intended. In fact, history shows that the US economy has more often done better when presidents did not have a subservient Congress. Trump's style would likely contradict that pattern and prove the negative to the assertion by Kevin Hassett, who chairs his Council of Economic Advisers, that “a house divided against itself often prospers”.

The international community, to which Trump's “America first” policy has signalled disengagement rather than to which it has provided leadership, is also watching these midterm elections very closely. The results will offer some indication as to whether, in the quest for a just, peaceful, secure and interconnected world, America will be part of the solution or become the core of the problem.

The American dilemma

Whatever the outcome of these elections, it will further expose and possibly worsen a deep-rooted malignancy in the American body politic. America is in the throes of an identity crisis. Its discomfort with its diversity is increasing and becoming more manifest. Prejudice and bigotry, previously carefully concealed, are now openly expressed and unashamedly defended. The American dream is fuzzy and distorted since the values that define it have become so unstable.

America is also caught in an ideological crisis. For a long time political thinking had converged around the centre, with conservatives and liberals within arm's length of each other. That gap is now widening with profound implications for consensus, stability, continuity and predictability.

America's relationship with the rest of the world, too, is in crisis. American leadership is being redefined to mean being superior to everyone else — not leading the way with shared values to a common destination. Fear of its economic and military might is trumping the value of its moral leadership.

Abraham Lincoln held America together during its darkest days when it was in danger of falling apart. He gave it a new sense of commonality and purpose, and a vision of the greatness that it would go on to achieve. If he can't be resurrected, America would do well to replicate him.

— Bruce Golding is a former Prime Minister of Jamaica

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