During the campaigning for the US midterm congressional elections, former vice president Joe Biden described them as the most important of his lifetime. “The only thing strong enough to tear apart America is America itself,” he said, “and we’ve seen it start, and we have to stop it – and that’s what Tuesday’s about.” Biden, pondering his own run for the White House in 2020, may find his wish for a kinder, gentler politics unfulfilled.
Historic, though, these elections certainly were. In taking back control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats now have the power to block many of Donald Trump’s more ambitious domestic policy initiatives. So-called Obamacare, for example, now looks safe from a second attempt at reform by the president. Mr Trump may find it trickier to get further tax cuts through the legislature, and funding for his Mexican wall project may prove more difficult to secure. Democratic chairmanship of key committees will mean tougher scrutiny across the executive arm.
If they wish – and there seems every indication that they do – the Democratic majority in the House will also make trouble for the president by, for example, requiring him to reveal his tax returns, and subpoenaing the White House for papers relating to the Mueller probe into collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. They could even commence impeachment proceedings, though these would almost certainly be blocked by the Republican majority in the Senate.
For American politics is, if anything, more divided for having a divided congress – a Democrat-controlled House but a Senate where the Republicans made some ground and retain control. That means the potential for deadlock on a range of policies is vastly extended. To break such stalemates in future would need the kind of cross-party cooperation that has largely evaporated in recent years, and particularly since Mr Trump arrived on the scene. Whatever his other virtues may be, no one could describe Mr Trump as a natural conciliator. In Nancy Pelosi, soon to be Democrat speaker of the House, Mr Trump will find a doughty opponent. This congresswoman is not for bullying.
For now, the president will have to concentrate his activities on foreign policy, where control of the Senate means he can get things done. Thus, the trade wars with China, the economic wars with Venezuela and Iran and, more positively, the peace initiative with North Korea will continue undisturbed by Democrat interference. The president will also be able to make appointments, such as to the Supreme Court, with a lasting effect on American society.
If these elections were a referendum on the president, they were not the overwhelming rejection his critics prayed for. Much of that was down to Mr Trump replaying themes from his 2016 campaign, with the caravan of migrants heading for the US border adding some extra drama. The booming economy will also have helped subdue the Democrats’ “blue wave”. The American people have opted to apply the brakes a little to their freewheeling leader, restraining him rather than handing him his notice. In some key battlegrounds, indeed, the Republicans scored some victories, notably the election of Ron DeSantis, a Trumpian Republican, as governor of Florida. Similarly Brian Kemp, a self-styled “Trump conservative”, looks set to take the governor’s mansion in Georgia, and Ted Cruz hung on to his Senate seat in Texas. Perhaps the best hope for the Democrats’ future will be the arrival of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Capitol Hill, representing New York.
Yet even if the Democrats had won control of both houses and scored a more resounding series of victories nationwide, the game might not be up for Donald Trump. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama lost control of the Congress in their first midterms, but went on to win a second term in the White House. Ronald Reagan never had control of the Congress at all in his first term, but he too went on to win another four years, in his case with a landslide (when, in a poor augury for Mr Biden, Reagan beat a previous Democrat former vice president). No one should rule out a successful Trump bid for a second term in 2020, provided the economy holds up.
Aside from party politics, the 11th Congress of the United States will look and sound more like the nation it governs, with more women, more LGBT+ lawmakers and more from minorities – including, astonishingly, the first Muslim women and the first Native American women ever elected to Congress. The results symbolise the changing demographics of America and, thus the long-term erosion of the Republican political base. In that sense too this round of midterms will turn out to be truly historic.