For once, it all happened more or less as we foresaw — and by “we” I mean risk-averse political commentators who hugged the polling averages and projections tight while resisting both Betomania and the occasional flashbacks to 2016. A good night for Republicans in the Senate. An excellent night for Democrats in the House. The Trumpian Upper Midwest swinging back toward Democrats. Red-state senate voters sticking with the G.O.P. The mobilize-the-base strategy falling just short for Democrats in Florida and Georgia. A rebuke to Trump in the overall returns, but not a presidency-ending repudiation. Two years of chaos and hysteria ending in a return to stalemate.
Between their Senate gains and a few surprising gubernatorial victories Republicans probably have enough consolation prizes to feel O.K. about the outcome. Trump critics on the right will feel a little better than O.K., since now the House can check and investigate our morally challenged president while the Senate keeps confirming conservative judges.
But this election confirms that, contra certain Trump enthusiasts, the #MAGA era in right-wing politics is essentially a defensive era, in which G.O.P. leverages a fortunate Electoral College win and an advantage in the Senate to fill the courts and delay liberal ambitions for a time — but fails, conspicuously, to reap political rewards from the current economic expansion and to build an actual popular majority.
Instead, after its nominee traded a lot of suburban voters for stronger working-class support in 2016, the Trump-era Republican Party has continued to hemorrhage suburbanites while also giving back some of those Midwestern, blue-collar gains. The political strategy for Republicans after Trump’s victory should have been obvious: Seal the working-class realignment with a dose of economic populism, hold the suburbs by dialing back the Trumpian excesses. Instead the president let congressional Republicans have their way on policy, and they let him be himself in other ways — which makes the Democratic sweep in the House exactly the outcome that both the soon-departing Paul Ryan and the president deserve.
And to the extent that conservatives — normal and NeverTrump alike — are willing to live with that outcome so long as they hold the Senate, it’s what we deserve as well. There is no conservative governing agenda at the moment; there is only a desire not to be ruled by liberalism. So that desire will be fulfilled for two more years and possibly for more — but meanwhile the ability to actually move legislation will be rightfully taken from a movement and a party that had no agenda of any significance to move.
What about Democrats? If Republicans just spent two years squandering a chance at a populist realignment, their rivals spent Election Day proving that they have solved some of their Obama-era problems — midterm turnout, above all — without finding way to turn a popular-vote advantage into the Senate majority that, no matter how unjust liberals increasingly find the existence of the Senate, they still need to somehow win.
The big, bold claim from the party’s progressive wing, that mobilization and demographic change can make the nominate-a-moderate strategy unnecessary, fell conspicuously short in several races. Meanwhile Joe Manchin showed that the old model of nominating a populist who fits your state’s swing voters still has life. But not enough life to save Joe Donnelly or elect Phil Bredesen, or to persuade the Democratic base to suddenly discover an enthusiasm for Senate candidates who are pro-life or immigration-restrictionist or ready, like Manchin with Brett Kavanaugh, to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
No: Democrats obviously want to win purple and red Senate seats, but they want to win them the way they just lost in Texas, with charisma and mobilization rather than with ideological compromise. So they’re left waiting, as before, for demography or a recession to deliver them that opportunity.
Until it comes, we have two parties that in different ways seem content with their insufficient coalitions, and a country that needs a governing majority but will settle yet again for stalemate.
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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.”
You can follow him on Twitter: @DouthatNYT
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