When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, the Republican Party already had control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Most of what he did with this rare double majority looks rather thin today: a failed attempt at repealing the Affordable Care Act, tax cuts, giving Bob Dole a gold medal. His other most notable legislative achievements, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and the First Step Act, were passed after Democrats had retaken the House in 2018. Everything else he has done in office has been accomplished by executive order.
Otherwise, apart from his appointment of three justices to the Supreme Court, Trump's first term has been defined largely by the things he has not done: dragged the United States into another war in the Middle East or meaningfully altered the balance of our trade relations with China. On foreign policy, Trump has easily been our best president since George H.W. Bush, though this is a bit like saying that the movie in which Luke Skywalker milked a giraffe walrus was the second best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.
What if Trump had not faced divided government during the latter half of his term? I do not think we should have expected anything else from him legislatively. The last time Republicans had both the presidency and both houses of Congress, they cut marginal tax rates. This is as far as the party's horizons have extended in my lifetime.
Why would four more years of Trump be any different, with the House remaining under Democratic control and a narrow Republican majority in the Senate? The best that his supporters can hope for is that in a second term Trump would be less deferential toward his own party and more interested in pursuing economic stimulus and infrastructure with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This seems to me supremely unlikely, not least because if he pulls off another upset victory on Tuesday, Trump will almost certainly be impeached by the Democratic House for an unprecedented second time. It is too early to say what the pretext would be, but my money would be on COVID. Legally speaking this case will be even weaker than the first, and it is easy to imagine one or two more Democratic holdouts than there were when he was charged with the hideous crime of making a phone call. But it would happen, and so would another acquittal in the Senate. There goes at least one year.
Another thing not outside the bounds of possibility is the appointment of at least one more justice to the Supreme Court. Stephen Breyer is 82 years old. By 2024, he will be 86. Only four justices — Roger Taney, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Paul Stevens, and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg — have ever served at such an advanced age. If Trump were to nominate Breyer's successor, he would be responsible for the most appointments to the high court since President Eisenhower, who selected five justices.
How does all of this compare to what we should expect from Joe Biden in the White House? Assuming the Senate remains in Republican hands, which still seems more likely than not, I think a Biden presidency would resemble Barack Obama's: relentless obstruction in the Senate, midterm gains by the GOP, theatrical pseudo-investigative hearings (on Ukraine, for example). Every bit as much as Trump, Biden would be forced to do as much as he could unilaterally by executive order. These ambitions would likely be frustrated by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
All of which is to say that, apart from the performative scandalmongering that has become the de-facto constitutional function of the House of Representatives, it is difficult to say what actually happens these days in Washington, D.C. It is certainly a mystery why we make as much fuss about presidential elections as we do.
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