Community forum: Party time, part II

By Jack Russell

Recently on this page, I offered historical perspectives on the Republican and Democratic parties and the dynamic that now most defines each.

In my view, President Donald Trump has captured the Grand Old Party with a whole hog faux populist pitch to the racially resentful right that Republicans have cultivated for 50 years. Democrats, lacking a new national leader, struggle in a rapidly evolving electorate and economy to compose their New Deal/Great Society heritage with the more centering gestures of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Here I envision how each party may perform in the 138-day passage to the 2018 midterms that begin the sustained national confrontation to the 2020 presidential election, perhaps our most consequential in 160 years.

Trump remains popular with the voters who gave him an Electoral College majority in 2016. This week, Republican approval of Trump stands at 90 percent.

Yes, his overall approval rating is 41 percent, and he is 11 percent underwater (disapproval minus approval), but on the day he was elected, Trump’s approval rating was 37 percent. The last four presidents to win second terms had comparable approval ratings in June of their second years. Obama had 46 percent approval; George W. Bush, 73 percent (post 9/11); Clinton, 46 percent and Ronald Reagan, 45 percent. Trump has not crashed.

Firm support from the Republican base gives Trump a strong hand with his party caucuses in Congress and the loudest party voice in the midterm elections.

We have heard confident predictions of a blue wave that will take back the U.S. House in 2018. That is possible; so is a Republican hold by a narrow margin.

I am looking with care at every congressional race that FiveThirtyEight, The Cook Political Report and Ballotpedia rank as competitive, currently some 83 districts. I have winnowed that count down to 68 seats, 47 held by Republicans, 21 by Democrats. This will change with primaries still to come and the evolving environment of the next 20 weeks. My current guess is that the House elected in November could range from a new Democratic majority of 17 to a preserved Republican majority of seven.

Control of the House in the next Congress is of great consequence. A Democratic majority would provide a constitutional check on the havoc of the Trump administration and would be, if appropriate, the arena in which to develop articles of impeachment.

Wise Democratic candidates will deflect clamor for impeachment by saying only that the prosecutors must be allowed to conclude and report their investigations unmolested.

The huge contingencies, of course, are the reports by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Will Mueller find collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russian operatives who meddled grossly with our 2016 elections? Will he assert that Trump obstructed justice trying to suppress the inquiry? Will the prosecutors charge criminal acts by the Trump inner circle and even by Trump? If their reports deliver such findings before this November, Americans will demand answers to questions that will shape the November midterms.

Will some Republican candidates call for constitutional or criminal action based on the reports? Or will most obfuscate by sustaining the Trump-Fox “witch hunt” angle?

Will American business leadership find the spine to stand up for honesty, trade order and needed regulation in commerce? Or will they be too busy gorging on tax break-enabled, executive-enriching stock buybacks?

Will a significant part of the Trump white working class base that is not driven by racial resentment see that the president has not delivered on the populist promises he made in 2016 and move on from Trump and those in Congress who have supported him?

Those privileged to live in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District will see this drama play out as Democrat Jared Golden, apparent winner of the primary at press time, contends with incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin.

Should the prosecutors report before November with major political impact, then a blue wave will bring Democratic control of the House and, perhaps by the minimal margin, the Senate. It is hard now to envision a U.S. Senate in 2019 with the 67 votes necessary for conviction of Trump on articles of impeachment.

What can we expect from the 435 Democratic campaigns for Congress, especially in those districts where candidates seek to claim or defend competitive seats?

Their goals are clear. First, win the House. Second, articulate a “Make America sane again” program on which a Democratic House could begin work in 2019 and a unified Democratic federal government could achieve starting in January 2021. Third, move toward a coherent Democratic message that addresses the daily-life needs of the working American majority in all its 21st-century complexity. And fourth, prepare the political path for 2020 primaries in which a new voice emerges to articulate this message as only a presidential nominee can. Let’s call this nominee “True Blue.”

Thus far, trends encourage. Democrats have not degraded into the pundit-predicted ongoing contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters. Democrats debate policy, program and message but welcome the “big tent” national electoral coalition they must be.

Democrats are waging a long-term campaign to undo the Republican gerrymandering of 2010, with impact already in North Carolina, Ohio and especially Pennsylvania. All are required to play by the current campaign finance rules, but money is at hand from George Soros and Tom Steyer and millions of ten-buck resistors.

Essential elements of the national Democratic coalition show spirits well above their participation in 2016. African-American, Hispanic and young voters have re-engaged in primary and special elections at levels comparable to 2008 and 2012. And of special significance in several swing states is the energy of suburban women organizing against Trump, as documented by Harvard sociologist and Mount Desert Island summer resident Theda Skocpol.

Several of the congressional races will test the ability of Democrats to win back white working class voters alienated by the Democratic Party’s failure to address the erosion of their living standards, the life chances of their kids and the feeling that they’ve been left behind. Right populist whistles to racial resentment misled some; they are currently beyond reach.

But millions voted for Trump in 2016 only because they saw some hope in his populist promises; many of them had supported Obama, often twice. November may rehearse their return to a more responsive Democratic Party.

During 50 years as a progressive, I have never lost faith in the eventual wisdom of the American people. I believe some fraction of the Trump vote in 2016 will stay home in 2018 and some will find Democratic candidates who speak to their needs. Democratic voters not engaged by Hillary Clinton in 2016 will return to check Trump in 2018.

My mid-June crystal ball reveals a 226 Democratic, 209 Republican House in January 2019. We then will have two years to inspire True Blue, a second blue wave in 2020 and the better American that is possible.

Jack Russell lives at the north end of Echo Lake.

The first piece in this two-part series was published in the June 7, 2018 edition of the Islander.

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