Lessons From The Midterms

It was a blue wave. It didn’t appear so on election night but as the days passed, the mail in ballots were counted the Democrats gained 40 seats in the House and did exceptionally well in the Senate. They were able to win the two vulnerable Republican seats – Arizona and Nevada - and avoided losing Montana and West Virginia, two states Trump won handily in 2016. The president and his supporters are still trying to spin gaining two seats as somehow ‘defying history’ but the reality is, given the Senate electoral map in 2018, the GOP should have easily gained 4 to 5 seats. Hopefully, once the happy talk from the RNC about "touching" 8 zillion voters (whatever that means) fades away and the holidays are behind, more and more Trump supporters will realize that the midterms were a disaster for the president. There are many lessons to be learned and no time to waste.

I have my own lesson to learn from the midterms, primarily that I should stick with my initial assessments. Trust my instincts. As early as August 2017, I warned that GOP establishment intended to run out the clock on the Trump administration and block any part of the MAGA agenda that the donor class did not support. Moreover, I argued that it would be preferable for the president not to pursue a major overhaul of the tax code but instead:

"... pursue a corporate tax cut, increase standardized deductions, and call it a day. My preference would be to eliminate the corporate tax for companies entirely based in and exclusively employ individuals in the United States. Perhaps we could target small companies for tax relief while keeping the taxes steady on multinationals or corporations with revenues in the millions as a way to avoid the Democrats’ charge of “tax cuts for billionaires”. Such an approach would provide a boost to the economy, keep the president’s populist bona fides intact and, most importantly, can actually be achieved."

Alas Trump decided to follow the lead of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell - as he has done ever since he was elected - and received no electoral reward as wealthy districts delivered the House to the Democrats. To add insult to injury,  companies that benefited from the corporate tax cuts used the extra cash to fund Democrats or progressive groups. 

In May of this year, I described the GOP establishment's strategy to date as:

"...to extract everything they wanted from Trump -- tax cuts, new military spending, keeping the carried interest loophole, deregulation -- and if this fall the Democrats take over Congress, so be it."

and made the case that the GOP donor class would rather lose the midterms than embrace populism. As late as September 2018, I was still on target as I wrote:

"It is a sure bet that the GOP establishment will work to sabotage Trump - as it did in 2016 - because Democrats controlling the House means no wall, continued mass immigration and paralyzing the administration for the remainder of its term. Should the blue wave materialize, Trump will be challenged for the GOP nomination in 2020."

only to take a wrong turn. In the same article I concluded that the improving economy would cause voters to overlook Trump’s crass and, often, childish behavior as they did in 2016. I was wrong. Very wrong.  

As reliable red states like Texas and Georgia turned into close calls, the immediate response of many on the Right was to blame immigration. While it is not my intention to minimize the potential long term impact of changing demographics, it was not the cause of Ted Cruz having the scare of his political life. It was the white suburban, college educated Republicans leaning voters who delivered the blue wave. Without Hillary as the alternative, these voters decided they had enough of Trump’s behavior and chose to send him a message - healthy 401Ks and tax cuts be damned!  

In retrospect, I also overestimated the impact of the Kavanaugh controversy. I had never seen the Republican Party so united as they fought for his confirmation.  I really believed that the two factions - globalists and populists - had finally come together. Maybe it was all wishful thinking on my part, or it was real but too late. The record retirements by Republicans in swing districts, the decision to pour millions in lost causes like Barbara Comstock while leaving competitive districts short of funds could not be undone. It was too late to organize a more effective ground game or develop a strategy for mail in ballots. The GOP establishment decided to throw the election months earlier and achieved the resulted they aimed for: blocking populism for the next two years.