“The most important election in modern American history”
Interview: Dr. Daniel Pontzen
Dr. Charles Kupchan regards the Midterm Elections as a referendum on President Trump’s tenure. The Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University also explains in the conversation shortly before the election why there is no political center on Capitol Hill anymore and why the system of checks and balances is in a deep crisis.
Dr. Kupchan, which regions and which groups of voters do you expect to be decisive regarding the House of Representatives?
The most important factor to keep an eye on is the turnout. It appears that the American public is very mobilized, especially after the mail bombs that were sent to leading Democrats and the shooting in the synagogue. President Trump is continuing to use quite heated and provocative language trying to get his base out. But it appears that this is also going to get the Democratic base out.
The demographics to watch are first of all women. Will they turn out in large numbers? Will they tend to vote for the Democrats? Secondly, minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics will be important. One of the reasons why Hillary Clinton lost in her contest with Donald Trump was that she had a lower turnout among minorities than Barack Obama had. The key states to watch are the swing states, places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. These are reasonably large states with high numbers of elected representatives. Going by the poll numbers it looks like the Democrats will take back the House. But I am very gun-shy about making any predictions given how misguided the polls were in the last presidential elections.
Do you think there is one single, dominant topic like health care that might be decisive in the aforementioned swing states?
One distinction between the midterms and the presidential contest is that the Democratic Party has clearly decentralized its messages and lets Members of Congress run on their own. The Democratic Party – depending on what part of the country you are in – is a very ideologically disparate group. In some districts Democrats stand a good chance if they run on the far left, if they call for medical coverage for all and for free tuition to go to college. In other parts of the country a Democrat who runs on those messages would be going nowhere.
The Democrats should now and in view of 2020 focus on bread and butter issues. On the economy, on jobs, on training, on health care. Many Americans are tired of the cultural wars and identity issues. Even though these issues dominate social media as well as cable news networks, most Americans are primarily worried about their pocket book.
Many Americans are tired of the cultural wars and identity issues.
Even if you are gun-shy, it seems pretty likely that there could be a change in the House. Do you agree?
It is more likely than not. One would hope that the pollsters have learned from lessons and figured out what they did wrong in 2016. They should look at the right demographics when they do their surveys today. But given that FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times and others had Hillary Clinton close to a 90 percent likelihood of victory, I am not ready to say that this is a done deal. But this is an extremely important election. It may be the most important election in modern American history, because first of all it is a referendum on Donald Trump. It will give us a sense of what is going to happen in 2020. Secondly, the bottom line is that Trump has largely been able to govern in an unchecked fashion. The founding fathers created a compound republic, the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances. But there has been very little to stop him on many issues. If the Democrats do succeed in taking back the House, there will be a political check.
The bottom line is that Trump has largely been able to govern in an unchecked fashion.
Let us turn to the Senate. 35 seats are at stake, the Democrats would need just two more seats than now. Why is it still going to be a lot harder for them than in the House?
Part of it has to do with demographics. In addition to creating a system that is supposed to guarantee checks and balances, the founding fathers also gave a lot of power to the states by giving every state two senators, no matter the population of the state. Many states in the Plains or in the South that do not have nearly as many voters as large states like California, New York or Florida, nonetheless have the same representation in the Senate. In that respect, the vote of a Republican in North Dakota counts much more than the vote of a Democrat in Massachusetts. Even though the country as a whole may vote Democrat overall, that bias will not show up in the Senate because of the voting system. Also, there are simply not as many races where it looks like that the Democratic candidate has a good chance of unseating a Republican incumbent.
What would be the biggest change in Washington, if the Republicans kept the Senate and the Democrats won the House?
The most significant change would be reflected in the checks and balances. Although Trump can still do a lot without the approval of Congress when it comes to issues like the Paris Agreement or the Iran Nuclear Deal or pulling out of the INF Treaty.
You are likely to see a House that makes it very difficult for President Trump to govern on a day-to-day basis because of one inquiry after another into his finances, into the Russia investigation, into just about everything under the sun.
But you are likely to see a House that makes it very difficult for President Trump to govern on a day-to-day basis because of one inquiry after another into his finances, into the Russia investigation, into just about everything under the sun. It is conceivable to me that you could see a move to impeach the president, if the Democrats take the House. It is going to be pretty nasty. You are not likely to see any significant change in the underlying animosity that today typifies American politics. The Democrats won’t come in and say: Ok, let’s go back to bipartisanship, let’s go back to rules that give the minority more power. I cannot overstate the degree to which the United States is in an unrecognizable political mood because of how polarizing this president has been.
I cannot overstate the degree to which the United States is in an unrecognizable political mood because of how polarizing this president has been.
Let us look at a second scenario. Which are the most important legislative projects on the Republicans’ agenda for the next two years, if they keep the Senate and the House?
There would be a high likelihood of further tax reform and tax cuts. We would likely see further efforts to undo Obamacare. And we would likely see a president who becomes more and more convinced that he has the right formula. Over the last couple of years since he has been in office, Trump has believed more and more in himself, he is more comfortable in his own skin. If the Republicans were to hold the House and the Senate, Trump would see that as a sign that he should double down on ‘America First’. There could be new tariffs and a sharper unilateralism. In some ways Trump has proven to be more ideological than we thought at the beginning. This would only deepen if this midterm election is seen as a confirmation of his style of government and his substance.
Do you think the President’s tax issues and past business deals would case him problems if the Democrats won the House?
You would see a mess, a chaos, a Congress that is even more dysfunctional than it is now. The president enjoys legal immunity on most fronts while he is in office. My understanding is that even if he had committed fraud before he came into office, that could not be prosecuted until he leaves office. The only legal recourse that you could see is a move to impeach him, if the Democrats take the House. But that would have very significant consequences for the American political system. Quite honestly, I am not sure whether that would be a positive step from the perspective of the political health of the United States. If the Democrats do take the House, their best strategy is to ride out the next two years and hope to take the presidency back in 2020.
If the Democrats do take the House, their best strategy is to ride out the next two years and hope to take the presidency back in 2020.
How severe is the crisis of the deliberative process regarding the legislative record in 2017 of declining debates carried out in the House and declining amendments considered in the Senate?
It is important to appreciate that Trump is a symptom as well as a cause. He reflects a trend in the political life that began in 1994 when the Republicans took back the House while Bill Clinton was president. That really is the beginning of what I would call the death of America’s political center. It is a process that is taking place in Germany right now. Although your political center is weakening, it is not yet depopulated. The American political center does not exist on Capitol Hill. It exists in the public, there are still many centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans. That is why you have seen these big swings in the pendulum from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, and then from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. You don’t know who will come next. It may be a centrist Democrat who looks a lot more like pre-Trump than post-Trump. But it is important to realize that whoever the president is, he or she will be working in a political system in which the political center is effectively gone. I see the Republican Party in particular as being overtaken by an angry insurgency on the far right that is not going to be repaired for a very long time.
The American political center does not exist on Capitol Hill.
Do you see any Democrat in the midterm races who might be that person to beat Trump in 2020 combining the two factors of mobilizing enough on the left and of winning enough in the rest of the political center?
I cannot give you a name. And I find that concerning. It is completely conceivable that the Democrats could take the House and that Trump could win the reelection in 2020. It is much easier for the Democrats to run when they don’t need a national figure or a national message. Once we get into the presidential campaign, and this is going to happen very quickly after the midterm elections, we are looking for a figure that can unify the party and can articulate a clear message that resonates with voters across the political spectrum. I would like to see someone like Joe Biden although he is on the older end of the spectrum. He is someone who can appeal to the white working class but at the same time can reach out to liberals and younger voters. It is important to keep in mind that almost 45 percent of the American electorate is white without a college education.
It is completely conceivable that the Democrats could take the House and that Trump could win the reelection in 2020.
Donald Trump’s approval ratings have increased lately; they are currently at 43 percent. How big are his chances to stay in office for eight years?
I would put the number below fifty percent, but not much under fifty percent. This is a theological statement and not based upon evidence and facts. It is theological in the sense that Trump is outside of the mainstream for many Americans. I hope that the American people will come back to their senses and vote for someone who is more fit to be in the Oval Office.
At the end, I would like you to complete the following sentences. Number one: after a very competitive race, out of the 23 seats the Democrats need to pick up in the House, they will …
… end up picking up more than 30 seats.
Number two: next year, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will eventually …
… set forth the finding of his investigations. More heads will roll, more indictments will be forthcoming. But it is anybody’s guess whether Mr. Mueller will get into the higher reaches of the presidency including Mr. Trump himself.
And number three: the future of the transatlantic relationship will, after all the recent challenges, …
… be up for grabs. I am an Atlanticist. Europe and the US don’t have any option other than to stay together. I hope, that the Europeans in general give the United States time to find its way back to partnership. I don’t know how long it will take, but it will happen. In the meantime, please do your best to prevent Europe from falling apart.
In the meantime, please do your best to prevent Europe from falling apart.