If anything is certain this election season, it’s that everything is uncertain. Should the strong economy continue and nothing too crazy happens, it’s conceivable that Republicans could hang onto the executive, the Senate, and even regain the House. President Trump will be on the ballot in all those districts Democrats swiped from Republicans, and now they’ll also have their own record, or lack thereof (impeachment, anyone?), upon which to run. The Senate will come down to a few key races in Maine, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, but Democrats will have to win them all in order to gain the four seats needed to gain control (three if they win the presidency). And Trump is coming off what even HBO host Bill Maher called “his best week ever” following his Senate impeachment acquittal and widely acclaimed State of the Union address.
None of the three tasks - holding onto the executive and Senate and retaking the House - will be easy, but all are doable. It’s also conceivable that Democrats could sweep everything. They have the numbers, and if their turnout exceeds our turnout in the right places they win, pure and simple.
However, the most probable scenario is that, whoever assumes the presidency in 2021, government will remain divided. If Trump does manage to win a second term in office this November, he will likely face at least one legislative branch controlled by Democrats. If that branch is the Senate, good luck getting any judges or appointees confirmed. If it’s the House, Trump won’t be able to sneeze without Adam Schiff calling for an impeachment inquiry. If it’s both, God help him.
But things weren’t always this way. Richard Nixon won 301 electoral votes in 1968 and a crushing 520 in 1972, but his party controlled neither the House nor the Senate any of the time he was in office. Notably, Democrats did lose seats after Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory, from 247 House members to 243 and from 64 senators to 58. Hardly the stuff of national consensus, even though Democratic nominee George McGovern only managed to win Massachusetts and Washington D.C. Yet, Nixon was able to appoint four arguably conservative Supreme Court justices and a whopping 231 federal judges, 38 more than Franklin Roosevelt, and in half the time to boot.
The GOP didn’t sniff control of either legislative branch until Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory propelled them to what became a six-year Senate majority run. Despite his popularity and landslide 1984 reelection (you know, the one where everyone said McGovern would always hold the record for losers until Walter Mondale said, ‘Hold my beer.’), the House remained firmly in Democratic hands.
Absent historical knowledge and given today’s mindset, one might guess that Reagan got some judges and appointees confirmed (he did), yet failed to pass meaningful conservative legislation. One might assume that, but one would be wrong. In fact, Reagan’s signature Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 passed overwhelmingly in the Senate (89-11) and skated through the Democratic controlled House 238-195. The act lowered the capital gains tax to 20 percent, weakened the estate tax, cut corporate taxes, and slashed the top marginal tax rate 20 points, from 70 percent to 50 percent. It also helped spur economic growth the likes of which America hadn’t experienced in decades. Yes, Reagan’s April 1982 meeting with then Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill formed the foundation for some compromises conservative didn’t like, but it also paved the way for some significant legislative accomplishments such as social security and criminal justice reform. Agree or disagree, Ronald Reagan signed a LOT of bills during his presidency, bills that were passed by a Democratic-controlled House.
It has worked the other way too, of course. Bill Clinton reformed the welfare system with Republican help from a Congress controlled by the GOP. Barack Obama worked with Republicans to make the George W. Bush tax cuts permanent. Both also appointed a total of four Supreme Court justices with bipartisan support and very little significant opposition or obstruction from Republicans.
If your thought process while reading this is along the lines of “My, how things have changed,” you’re getting the message loud and clear. Despite the precious few exceptions of trade and criminal justice reform, can anyone imagine President Trump getting Democratic help on anything considered remotely conservative these days? Of course not. Can anyone imagine the Democratic-led House stopping its endless efforts to concoct something to remove Trump from office and focus on points of agreement and legislative ideas that are bipartisan and passable? Hell would freeze over.
But why? Trump has always expressed a willingness to work with Democrats, so despite his bluster at times it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t jump at the chance to do something good. In fact, Republicans will all-too-often try to work with Democrats even to the detriment of their own stated principles. No, the more likely alternative is that Democrats in office have changed as their constituencies have moved further and further to the hard left.
Consider the Blue Dog Coalition, that pack of supposedly “conservative” Democratic House members whose charter calls them to advocate for “fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense and bipartisan consensus rather than conflict with Republicans.” There are currently 27 members, enough to give the GOP a majority - that is if any of those members were really interested in keeping America from becoming a quasi-socialist banana Republic. If they were, any could easily follow in the steps of New Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew, but they haven’t, and they likely won’t. Why? Because there are no good Democrats.
Consider the Senate’s supposedly “moderate” Democrats - folks like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Montana’s Jon Tester, and even the soon-to-be former senator from Alabama, Doug Jones. Sure, maybe some might join the GOP in voting for the occasional judge or Trump appointee when the result is already in the bag, but have any of these purported paragons of bipartisanship ever been the deciding vote on anything of importance? Of course not, because there are no good Democrats. Even on the impeachment of Donald Trump, when one Democratic senator would have meant a bipartisan acquittal and thus unallowable by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer - all voted to convict. Even the ‘reasonable-sounding’ Manchin was eventually corralled by Schumer into betraying his constituents who, albeit naively, allowed him to remain in office.
If Manchin’s betrayal in particular has taught us anything, it’s that in the end, it’s good to know the rules these days. Republicans may range from solid to Mitt Romney squish, but there are no, nada, zero ‘good’ Democrats. The age of the bipartisan Democrat is long gone, and isn’t likely to return. If you live in a state where one is running, you’ve at least got a fighting chance voting for the R. Because the D is a no-win game with ZERO exceptions.
Follow Scott on Twitter @SKMorefield