The American public awoke on Wednesday morning to find a divided government that reflected a nation divided. The results foreshadow the wide gulf between our parties and the narrow prospects for cooperation. Despite the loss of the House of Representatives by Republicans, President TrumpDonald John TrumpEx-White House counsel interviewed Whitaker about joining Trump’s legal team: report Flake slams Trump for doubting Arizona vote count: No evidence of ‘electoral corruption’ Comey talked about sensitive FBI matters on personal email: report MORE will set the tone for the next two years as he begins to campaign for reelection in earnest and Democrats jockey for position in their own “permanent campaign.”
Tuesday’s election results also provide a clear vision of the geographic retrenchment of American political parties and a dark omen for cooperation: a Democratic Party concentrated in cities and suburbs and a Republican Party of exurban and rural America. This cycle featured a Senate map that forced Democratic incumbents to defend largely rural, Trump-friendly red states; the “blue wave” of Democratic mobilization, which brought Democrats their best sweep of House seats since 1974, met the “red wall” of rural America in the Senate races. While President Trump’s policies and rhetoric drew an electoral rebuke from women, first-time voters, and college educated voters, it was rewarded in equal parts by an older, whiter, working class Trump coalition that has now become the base of the Republican Party.
Expanding this coalition will also be key for their 2020 electoral strategy, as results in the South and Sunbelt — such as the narrow loss of Beto O’Rourke in Texas and too-close-to-call races in Arizona and Florida — presage increased competition in once Republican strongholds. The GOP will look to energize its rural base and whatever it can regain in the Rust Belt to focus on holding the Senate, where less-populous states hold proportionally greater way, and focus on turning out white, working class voters to provide a path to 270 votes in the Electoral College.
President Trump has already made clear that he feels emboldened by continued Republican control of the Senate and the prospect of a Democratic House for a political foil. All of this was demonstrated nearly immediately as he fired Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsEx-White House counsel interviewed Whitaker about joining Trump’s legal team: report Flake: Whitaker shouldn’t oversee Mueller probe FBI investigating Florida company Trump’s acting AG was involved in: report MORE, hosted a bare-knuckle press conference, and teased the prospect of further staff shake ups. Whatever window there may be in early 2019 for triangulation and compromise among President Trump, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, and (presumably) House Speaker Pelosi is already in danger of slamming shut.
There is, of course, talk of how infrastructure, healthcare, and immigration are areas with potential for a “grand bargain”—just as has been accomplished during divided government in the past. However, much will be made of the positioning for 2020, however, and the need to “reward the base” following the record turnout of the 2018 midterms. An acrimonious “lame duck” period until the end of the year — especially if it is dominated by speculation about special counsel Mueller’s Russia investigation or the prospect of a limited government shutdown over funding for border security — will further narrow the slim prospects for any bargain, grand or otherwise.
Democrats are nevertheless excited about the prospect of subpoena power and the first real congressional oversight of the Trump administration. Republicans believe that executive power and Senate appointments will be enough to accomplish the remaining items on their agenda. In this, both parties’ partisans are mistaken: in order to achieve something lasting and concrete to help the American people before 2020, they will have to find a way to work together.
Whether or not the the president and his team can compartmentalize the inevitable congressional investigations — avoiding a “warlike posture” for the sake of executive-legislative cooperation in other areas — will be a key determinant of the tenor of the next two years. President Trump will be in control of a smaller, but more pliant Republican caucus, and, with some control of the levers of government, Democrats will have to demonstrate more than hypothetical proposals and define their policies beyond opposition to the Trump administration.
Indeed, American politics for the next two years will be determined in large part by just what kind of legacy a still powerful President Trump wants to forge. If he wants to be a partisan brawler and the unrepentant champion of his base, be prepared to hear more campaign rally vitriol inside the Beltway. If, on the other hand, he seeks a lasting legacy for his presidency, then “art of the deal” President Trump will, at long last, have to make his appearance on the political stage.
Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and the director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.