It was clear long before the ballots were cast on Tuesday that this year’s enormously consequential congressional elections would be a referendum on the disruptive and often disgraceful presidency of Donald Trump. The president himself on Monday admitted that “even though I’m not on the ballot, in a certain way I am on the ballot.” The press, he noted, considers the election “a referendum on me.”
That it was, and the results in the House of Representatives are a a dramatic and deserved rebuke for the president. Although votes are still being counted, including in California, Democrats will easily regain control the House next year.
Granted, Republicans will add a few seats to their narrow majority in the Senate, so the “blue wave” didn’t reach that chamber. But the shift in the House clearly constitutes a repudiation of Trump’s reckless policies, his violation of political and ethical norms and his repeated falsehoods. It is also an unmistakable rejection of the contemptible rhetoric of fear and prejudice that he has resorted to in recent weeks to rile up his base, especially his claim that a caravan of dangerous asylum-seekers from Central America was heading north to the border to “invade” the United States.
The president will say almost anything — true or untrue, responsible or reckless — to win over voters. And to a disheartening extent, his words seemed to energize Republican voters and lift GOP candidates in some statewide races. But Tuesday’s results demonstrate that citizens can offer resistance to an unfit president by mobilizing voters and supporting exceptional candidates.
To their everlasting discredit, the Republicans who controlled the House during the first two years of Trump’s term never seriously challenged the president, placing their own careers above the importance of holding an undisciplined (and at times unhinged) president accountable. Instead of using their oversight authority to scrutinize the administration, House Republicans repeatedly sought to discredit the investigation into possible contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. Instead of speaking out, Republicans stood by while Trump degraded American democracy and undermined the institutions that support it.
Democrats have made it clear that when they regain control of the House they will conduct the sort of aggressive oversight of the administration Republicans refused to provide. Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, has said that his party will “check the ambition of an imperial and erratic president.”
In doing so, however, Democrats will need to avoid mirror-image partisanship or grandstanding or obstructionism for its own sake.
For example, they should be cautious about moving toward impeachment of the president. It’s conceivable that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation might produce information that would change that calculation; but a rush to undertake impeachment proceedings in the absence of such evidence could backfire politically. Millions of Americans would see it as neither legitimate nor justified — and furthermore, it would receive no meaningful support in the Senate as long as that body is controlled by Republicans.
An attempt to reinvestigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh could also be a political mistake.
That still leaves plenty for House Democrats to look into — including whether officials of the administration have engaged in ethics violations or failed to faithfully execute the law.
Democrats should be prepared to scrutinize not only the conduct of the administration and its officials but also the legislation it proposes. And they should work to defeat regressive proposals by the administration while also pushing forward a responsible legislative agenda of their own, to the extent possible.
Although it might seem unlikely in the current political climate, Democrats should also be open to the possibility that, faced with a Democratic House, Trump might be willing to negotiate across party lines on matters such as immigration reform, expenditures on infrastructure or even healthcare policy. Democrats made healthcare a key campaign issue, so they should fight to preserve protections for people with preexisting conditions while also working to address some of the law’s shortcomings.
In the past, the president has expressed interest in fruitful cooperation with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer. Last month he tweeted: “If the Democrats would stop being obstructionists and come together, we could write up and agree to new immigration laws in less than one hour.” He added: “Chuck and Nancy call me!” Maybe those are empty promises, but Democrats should be willing to explore the possibility, even as they strongly object to proposals from the administration that are regressive or mean-spirited.
Democratic control of the House will make it harder for Trump to push through legislative proposals Democrats oppose; that’s good news, to be sure. But it is only a limited check on the president. He may, for instance, resort to executive orders and unilateral actions. He already has suggested (wrongly) that he can issue an executive order that would end “birthright citizenship” for children born in the United States to parents in the country illegally. And, of course, members of Congress have no control over what the president says or tweets.
Still, Tuesday’s election results are a powerful reminder that large numbers of Americans are disenchanted, and in some cases disgusted, by the way Trump is behaving as president. He should take that message to heart.