When George H. W. Bush lost in 1992, NR commented that his graciousness in taking full responsibility for defeat should not be permitted to obscure the fact that what he said was entirely correct. President Trump has not taken any responsibility for the Republican loss of the Senate, or even acknowledged his own defeat. But what he has not said is entirely correct in this case, too.
When Bill Clinton beat Bush, Democratic voters were celebratory and Republicans (and independents) concerned, and the Republicans won the Senate runoff in Georgia a few weeks later. This normal partisan dynamic should have been enough to carry even two mediocre candidates, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, to victory. Trump did everything in his power to keep it from setting in. He encouraged Republican voters to believe that his presidency would continue and that their votes would not count if they showed up. He gave a megaphone to Lin Wood — who seems either to be mentally ill or imitating the condition — who told voters to punish Republicans for not doing enough to indulge the fantasy of keeping Trump in office. And at the same time he alarmed Democratic voters that he would use extraconstitutional methods to retain power.
Republicans who seek to absolve Trump of any responsibility for the defeats say the fault is Mitch McConnell’s, for refusing to allow the federal government to send $2,000 checks to most households. Even more federal spending may have made a difference — although it should be noted that Loeffler and Perdue both came out for the bigger checks. But this is not a defense of Trump. It amounts to saying that Trump elevated an issue that helped the Democrats, first by having his White House sign off on a COVID-relief deal without the checks and then by demanding them after the fact. It would have been less harmful for him to insist on the checks consistently or to have touted all the help that the relief deal included. Instead, again, he chose the course most destructive to Republican political interests.
The narrow loss of the Senate is not a long-term electoral catastrophe. As dismaying, irresponsible, and just plain nutty as Trump’s conduct since the election has been, his presidency is ending with Republicans in a healthy electoral condition. They are hardly doomed in Georgia: They came close to winning these elections even under adverse circumstances, and Raphael Warnock will face the voters again in 2022. In Washington, D.C., they have the power to filibuster legislation. They can make it as politically costly as possible for Democrats to raise taxes in a reconciliation bill, or to confirm liberal culture warriors such as Xavier Becerra to the cabinet. They can seek to build on Trump’s success in attracting new voters to the Republican coalition and at the same time to win back some of the old ones he has alienated.
But there will be costs: Even the narrowest Democratic majority will be able to confirm many judges, pass tax and spending bills without Republican votes, and prevent congressional oversight of the executive branch. These were avoidable defeats, and they would not have happened without the character flaws that have always been the principal drawback to Trump’s leadership.