Who says you can't win for losing? The midterm election results, while not great for Republicans, may have been fortunate for President Trump.
Although the anticipated “blue wave” of Democratic dominance fell short of some pundits’ expectations, voters did give Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Bad for the Republicans, but maybe not all bad for the occupant of the Oval Office.
Trump never was a budget balancer, and when he ran for president he said he would protect entitlements. Now he can “spend and spend, elect and elect” without guilt, just like any Democrat. So, no loss for Trump there.
Further, the Democratic House majority could bring out Trump’s deal-maker instinct. He ran for president calling to rebuild the national infrastructure, but it never gained traction. Business and libertarian Republicans were not interested in spending money, and Democrats’ only interest was stopping everything Trump proposed. Now that the Democrats share power, they can share credit.
Consequently, once they get a year’s worth of congressional investigations out of their system, Democrats could be very interested in cutting a deal that can help their remaining blue-collar worker constituents, thus solidifying their hold on the House. Ironically, they would also help Trump hold the White House.
Just as in 1996 when Republicans supported Bill Clinton’s welfare reform program at the expense of their presidential candidate, Bob Dole, Democrats can also put the good of the nation — and their own chances for re-election — above the needs of their 2020 presidential candidate.
Also, during the coming year of investigations, the president can focus on social policy. Most people hate political correctness, and Trump can lead the fight against it. The Obama administration institutionalized PC and enforced President Obama's self-appointed role as national monitor of everything from public restroom policies to campus judicial proceedings by issuing bureaucratic regulations and sending warning letters that lacked legal backing or precedent.
Now, Trump can loudly use his podium to roll back another Obama legacy.
Most important of all for Trump’s supporters, losing the House could help Trump achieve his immigration goals. Until now, the president faced resistance from #NeverTrump business Republicans like the Koch brothers who support increased immigration. Now that he is free, Trump can turn congressional defeat into chicken salad. For example, the president can now issue executive orders to do what his own party wouldn’t do on immigration.
Without having to bow to congressional Republicans, Trump can order Homeland Security to build the wall to fend off current and future illegal immigrant caravans. He can also issue an executive order ending birthright citizenship.
Unlike Obama, who cited his “pen and phone"as the constitutional basis for granting green cards and amnesties to undocumented workers, President Trump can rest his orders on the president’s constitutional power to protect the nation’s borders and to overturn practices based on a fundamental misinterpretation of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. No doubt the lower courts will block both, but that is the first step toward getting the questions before the Supreme Court — a court whose originalist majority Trump created.
Historically, it is a near certainty that presidents’ parties will lose power in midterm elections. How they react to the situation is the unknown factor that helps define their presidencies.
When Bill Clinton and the Democrats lost Congress in the 1994 midterms, Clinton smartly saw it as an opportunity to move past gridlock. Applying the concept of “triangulation,” he became more of a centrist and pushed forward a welfare-to-work policy that had stronger support from Republicans than from his own party. In doing so, Clinton secured a second term.
Trump will be wise to follow the same course and return to his populist roots. By finding that middle ground, he can play to his self-proclaimed strength as the executive deal-maker and foil his critics with compromise.
Who said you can't win for losing?
Waters is an associate professor of history at Ohio Northern University. He teaches courses on the American presidency and recently concluded a Fulbright scholarship in Ghana.