Wednesday 21 November 2018

Rob Crilly: 'President will take heart from results that offer a populist path to winning a' second term

  

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in the White House. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY
US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in the White House. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY

Rob Crilly in Washington

If America's midterm elections were a referendum on President Donald Trump's performance so far, then this divided, polarised country delivered a predictably split result.

Mr Trump will have woken up yesterday morning knowing that he lost control of the House of Representatives while at the same time his Republican party was on course to strengthen its grip on the Senate.

That brings opportunities and challenges for the president as he ponders his chances of retaining the White House in 2020. This after all is a leader who has already struggled to impose his will on Congress and will find his legislative agenda stalled utterly for the next two years (unless he changes tactics and summons up the will to make deals with his opponents).

Yet Mr Trump will be buoyed by his own impact on the race. Republicans won or retained Senate seats in Indiana, Tennessee, Texas and North Dakota, all states where Mr Trump campaigned aggressively.

I watched results roll in with Republicans at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas - think cowboy hats alongside MAGA caps and the sort of cigarette vending machines I haven't seen since the 1990s - where one of the biggest cheers of the night came with the unseating of Claire McCaskill, in Missouri, and where the president finished up his campaign on Monday night.

Whatever his detractors say, Mr Trump remains an electrifying presence on the campaign trail, mobilising the base and playing a decisive role in key races.

A tighter grip on the Senate brings obvious benefits. It will be easier to push through appointments, allowing the president to continue the business of quietly remoulding the American courts into a more conservative shape, for example. That's a winner not just with the Trump base but with the sort of traditional Republicans who flinch at much of the president's style.

Even losing the House is far from a calamity. It is simply what happens to presidents after two years in power. Given Mr Trump's lowly approval rating it could have been a lot worse.

With the House in Democratic hands, opponents will get to chair its committees, control its investigations and deliver subpoenas.

Expect demands for his tax returns, a slew of fresh probes into his business interests and those awkward Russia questions to proliferate.

Maybe Democrats will return to the 'I word' - absent throughout the campaign - and make a move in impeaching the president.

So although Mr Trump loses the ability to drive through legislation without Democratic votes, he gains juicy new targets for his invective. Every new investigation, every new demand for his lieutenants to answer questions will reinforce the idea that the opposition sees Mr Trump's administration as illegitimate - a surefire recipe to excite the base and keep up momentum for 2020.

Like all populists, Mr Trump's 2016 campaign was defined by what he ran against - the elites, politicians, the swamp, globalism, Hillary Clinton. He now gets a fresh set of enemies and a chance to return to a successful playbook.

It will still be difficult for Mr Trump to win in 2020. The Democrats are starting to find their mojo - even if they haven't yet found a viable 2020 candidate.

All the signs are that their healthcare message connected with voters and that their strategy of running a national campaign against Mr Trump, while giving their candidates latitude to run on local issues, allowed them to disguise the gaping void at the top of the party.

Yet the night's mixed results for Republicans offer a clear conclusion for Mr Trump: populism pays. And if you thought the first two years of his presidency marked a descent into the ugliest of partisan politics, then I fear we've only just got started. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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