Editor’s Note: The following is the first of two excerpts from the revised and updated edition of The Case for Trump, out Tuesday from Basic Books.
Throughout the summer and early autumn of 2018, election experts had often predicted a massive blue wave of radical progressive pushback against Trump in the 2018 midterms: the long-awaited negative referendum on both his agenda and behavior, and thus at last an overdue reckoning for his entire Twitter-fueled presidency.
The Democratic tsunami against the incumbent president was promised to be analogous to the wipeout suffered by President Bill Clinton after his first two years (53 House, eight Senate seats lost), or Barack Obama’s even more disastrous 2010 loss (63 House, six Senate seats). The nonstop media attacks on Trump, still consistent with the 90 percent negative news coverage of his first few months in office, had certainly seemed to energize Democrats.
Indeed, by election eve, Democrats, in the preponderant manner of the 2016 campaign, had raised a record $1 billion for state, House, and Senate midterm races, with hundreds of millions more garnered by the progressive political-action committees. Turnout in some states set records for any president’s first midterm election. Democrats ran a number of centrists and military veterans in congressional districts that Trump had won, campaigning on Trump as the destroyer of Everyman’s right to health care. Democrats promoted voter harvesting and massive registration drives to expand the electorate in districts that had previously been lost to Republicans. Yet the subsequent radical themes of the 2020 presidential election were rarely to be heard in 2018; instead, they were manifested stealthily on the ground.
Eleven days before the election, on Saturday, October 27, a vicious shooting rampage by an unhinged alt-right and anti-Semitic terrorist (and Trump opponent) inside a Pittsburgh synagogue left eleven worshippers dead. Four days earlier, a series of inert bombs delivered to liberal politicians and celebrities (by an unbalanced professed Trump supporter) was still being portrayed in the media as the logical result of Trump’s bitter war with journalists and the Left. These last-minute tragic episodes tended to overshadow the prior conservative outrage over progressives’ harsh treatment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In sum, the blue wave was thought by progressives still to be cresting on Election Day. In general, any violent act — a shooting in America, a military stand-off abroad — was seen as fuel to attack Trump on the theory that he personified chaos and violence.
Yet, for all their premature self-congratulation, record campaign spending, and media blitz, the Democrats in strictly statistical terms had done historically not all that much better than most opposition parties in a president’s first term.
The usual recent midterm congressional losses for a first-term president since 1934 have averaged about 25 House (17 more than the 23 pickups that they had needed to control the House) and two Senate seats. Trump lost 40 House seats and, with them, control of the House itself. But he picked up two Senate seats, one of the more respectable Senate gains by an incumbent president in his first midterm since Franklin Roosevelt’s nine-seat pickup during the 1934 referendum on the New Deal. The entering 2019 Republican Senate cohort was perhaps more conservative than the Senate elected in 2016, given some Never Trump Senate retirements and more conservative new faces.
By historical standards, Trump’s wins and losses meant that he had performed better in his first midterm election than had Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Both former presidents had gone on to win handily their reelections.
Trump’s favorability polls, while gyrating widely, were roughly equivalent to those of his Democratic predecessors at a similar time in their presidencies. Trump likely lost control of the House for the generic reasons that all presidents in their first terms on average lose 25 seats in the House: Supporters grow complacent in victory, while in defeat overzealous opponents become more eager for a rematch.
The Republican Congress, thanks in part to a late spoiler vote by the late Senator John McCain, had failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, as once monotonously and simplistically promised. The result was that in 2018 there was no chance that unpopular soaring premiums, deductibles, and co-payments would become cheaper through more competition and a diversity of plans among private insurers, but a greater likelihood that talk of ending Obamacare without a replacement could be used to frighten voters that at least expensive Obamacare was better than no care at all.
By losing the House, Trump also faced the possibility of successful impeachment proceedings. In terms of partisan advantage, he perhaps hoped the optics of any such future event would reveal another Brett Kavanaugh–like progressive circus. Trump in 2019 certainly was no longer able to pass any legislation akin to his tax-reform act and was increasingly ruled by Obama’s pen-and-phone model of executive order. There was zero chance of picking up support from Democratic representatives by compromises likely unpalatable to both the Left and Right bases. New Democratic majority chairs of key House committees had promised to reboot their past efforts to refocus investigations on Trump himself and jam the administration with endless subpoenas and requests for documents.
Yet the utter collapse of the Russian-collusion narrative and its fraternal twin, “obstruction,” after the release of the Mueller report; the incoherent and surreal performance of Robert Mueller himself in congressional testimony; and the increasing likelihood that a number of Obama high intelligence and investigatory officials faced legal exposure have all more or less stymied impeachment to the point that it seemed a counterproductive enterprise to Democrats amid the looming 2020 elections.
This essay is excerpted from the fully revised and updated paperback edition of The Case for Trump, out Tuesday from Basic Books.