Yesterday, we considered the risks to the nation if Democrats fail to win a House majority on Tuesday. Today, I’ll look at what happens if they succeed. On one hand, the country will be spared the prospect of an empowered Donald Trump waging an unrestrained assault on institutions he thus far has been able to weaken but not destroy. On the other, we will have to contend with a threatened president facing multiple challenges to his wellbeing without the protection of a supine congress, and a sizable minority of the population feeling under siege from the loss of power at the hands of their perceived enemies.
The risks will be immediately apparent. Because of the two-month gap between electing and seating a new congress, the incoming Democratic majority will be powerless during the lame duck congressional session that begins after Election Day. With a new sheriff coming to town, the president will feel compelled to act out while he still can against whatever he perceives to be the biggest threats to his security. It’s hard to imagine how he could constrain himself from trying to scuttle the Mueller investigation, potentially creating a situation of crisis proportions while setting up a direct confrontation with Democrats in January.
Intuitively, Trump will know he is in grave danger—more danger than he has ever faced in his life. Armed with subpoena power, a Democratic House majority will have the ability to investigate the political and policy crimes alleged against the administration and to challenge Trump’s heretofore unquestioned command of the national agenda by focusing public attention on his actions. Trump’s instinct is to lash out when threatened, and he will have among his greatest assets a base of supporters enraged by the election outcome. I would expect Trump to try delegitimizing the election by angrily accusing his opponents of fixing the results, and his base will be primed to believe what he says. This, too, would move us closer to crisis by undermining the electoral process, one of the few institutions that can hold Trump accountable.
His other asset will be those Republicans who survived the election or, by the luck of the electoral map, got to sit out this cycle. There will be a lot of them, and unless there is an unexpectedly large wave on Tuesday, they will still control the Senate, where they can serve as a counterpoint for the coming cavalcade of subpoenas from the House side. How these Republicans react will depend on how they assess their political futures. On a smaller scale, Republicans were gutted in the 2017 election, losing big in the two states that had gubernatorial races and across the country in local contests. A result like that next Tuesday will present the survivors with an existential choice: abandon Trump at the risk of losing a primary election or support Trump at the risk of losing a general election, assuming present political conditions continue into 2020. This is bound to add a layer of intra-party chaos to an already charged moment, as Republicans realize that it’s every man (pretty much) for himself.
At the moment this is an academic matter, but should Republicans go down hard on Tuesday the world will look and feel quite different. “Rallying the base” will lose its cache if it leads to general election catastrophe, and I suspect mainstream reporters will start caring less about the opinions of typical Trump voters and more about the views of suburbanites responsible for the Republican carnage. The president will have been wounded politically and, despite his certain attempts to blame voters and congressional leaders for the defeat, he will take on the feel of a loser. It’s not hard to imagine how this will enrage him, or how he will lash out. The toxic brew of real and imagined threats, of pending legal and political checkmate, will be the subtext for a tense and uncertain future. How bad it gets will depend on the scope of the loss. Alarm bells will ring if Democrats win an outsized number of House seats, if they thread their way to a Senate majority, or if one or more of their most high profile challengers—Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum— beats the odds in the deep South.
A mixed result will mitigate the fallout, but if Democrats take control of the House we will be unable to avoid a major reckoning. Democrats who have deflected talk of impeachment out of fear of alienating swing voters will feel the intense heat of their base as the inevitable investigations lead inexorably to the conclusion that a lot of pretty bad stuff has gone down. Notwithstanding presidential efforts to interfere with the probe, Mueller will eventually report his findings, and it is not hard to imagine where this will lead in the hands of sympathetic House leadership.
We are on an uncharted path after the election, regardless of the result. Get ready.
Two more days.