Colby Cosh: Making sense of America’s midterm elections: is it even possible?

The headline result from Tuesday night’s U.S. midterm elections is that the Democrats have recaptured a majority in the House of Representatives but the Republicans have retained control of the Senate. It is still early to dig much deeper into the numbers, but both national parties — and even tendencies within those parties — are finding reasons to celebrate.

If the election is to be regarded as a referendum on Donald Trump, then the president, who made himself scarce all evening, can claim he did all right. Hopes that the U.S. electorate would turn on the Republicans in a spirit of revolutionary bloodthirst were defied. The Democrats will have enjoyed a net gain of 32 or so House seats, a typical figure for an opposition party in midterm. Republicans appear to have gained three or four Senate seats; this is a good performance, but the class of Senators up for re-election in 2018 happened to contain an unusual number of vulnerable and retiring Democrats. It is not typical for a president to make a gain in either house unless the U.S. is in a hot, serious war someplace.

Republicans did well in the states chosen for late personal Trump appearances, and it looks as though they have, for example, held on to the Florida governorship while wresting a Senate seat from incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. (This looked before the election like a difficult bank shot, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who bid for the Senate while putting some distance between himself and Trump, won narrowly in spite of having spent weeks looking leaderlike on TV after Hurricane Michael.)

The GOP obviously still has form in delivering close races and making tactical choices. And success in statewide races is good news if you are keeping one eye on a hypothetical Electoral College of 2020. But if you were looking for a Blue Wave of revulsion against the president, it is arguably there in the overall brute count of House votes, where the Democratic lead is about seven percentage points. The Republicans “won” this vote in the 2014 midterms by a margin of six points, and in the 2010 ones by seven.

Republican Governor Rick Scott, who was successful in his bid for a seat in the Senate, speaks to supporters at a midterm election party on Nov. 7, 2018, in Naples, Fla.

The overall picture appears to be one of lost Republican ground in America’s suburbs (broadly defined), which are behaving as a sort of middle electoral territory between the great Democratic cities and the Trumpophilic “heartland.” Canada’s elections behave very much in this way, as we are reminded every time a TV panelist mentions the 905, so the temptation to point at the phenomenon and denounce excessive American “polarization” should probably be avoided. War between the hinterland and metropolis is the normal condition of American politics between the big wars: think back to poor William Jennings Bryan ramming his head into the brick wall of Eastern interests over and over again in the late 19th century.

Supporters cheer while watching election results during a midterm election night party hosted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Nov. 6, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

The United States really is polarized — maybe we should say “are,” and start talking about the States in the plural again after all these years? — but polarization over cultural symbols is something that happens naturally when the economy is healthy, as it now inarguably is under Trump, and when no one has started a big, fresh war, which Trump hasn’t. (I know some of you will say “Yet!” Give peace a chance!) Those who side with Trump on immigration and trade will say that protectionism and nationalist signalling have worked out nicely for the U.S. economy in the short term; but Congress is also deficit-spending just as though the country really was at war, and, frankly, this wasn’t a major issue anywhere on the 2018 electoral scene. The Tea Party small-government tendency in U.S. politics has been eclipsed within the Republican party by a weird nativist-Keynesian attitude. Democrats are trying to rescue the Obama settlement on health care and to figure out whether or not they are otherwise a real party of the left. (For what it’s worth, the hard-left part of the House Democratic caucus will end up a little bigger.)

This makes it hard to see exactly what, if anything, these elections were a triumph for. The Democratic capture of the House will give that party entertaining new investigative powers when it comes to the president, but it is an open question whether the political impetus exists for an all-out impeachment attack. Establishment figures will argue that the party ought not to take its eye off the policy ball and engage in personal vendetta of the sort that harmed the Republicans when Bill Clinton was in office.

This may make sense as far as it goes, but what is the policy ball in this metaphor? From the Canadian vantage point, it is not as though we are getting NAFTA back. And unless the Democrats can collectively commit toward marching the country toward single-payer public health insurance, which (spoiler alert) they can’t, American health-care arguments are destined to remain confused and complicated and honestly rather bleak. The Democrats’ 2020 presidential nomination struggle is now less clear, not more, with Beto O’Rourke’s shockingly strong performance against Ted Cruz in Texas’s Senate race adding one more name to the list of the papabile. Maybe, since all sides are claiming victory, the main effect of the 2018 midterms will just be the reinjection of a small note of optimism and hope into American democracy. Hey, it sounded good before I typed it out.

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