US democracy, which almost buckled two years ago, just delivered a perfect reflection of a polarized nation that mistrusts its leaders and isn’t ready to unite on a new path.
Tuesday’s midterm elections gave Americans two more years to collectively decide what they really want by likely ushering in a divided government that is certain to be acrimonious but will prevent Democrats or Republicans from engineering a major ideological shift. It also scrambled the terrain of the early 2024 presidential race, with President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump both moving toward new campaigns that much of the country appears not to want.
The GOP appears to be crawling agonizingly slowly toward the 218 seats it needs to claim the speaker’s gavel, signaling that voters may have ended Biden’s big-spending progressive agenda. CNN has not projected control of the House or Senate, with the upper chamber hanging by a thread as races in two Democratic-held seats remain too early to call and a third advanced to a December runoff.
But the election deprived the GOP of the massive red wave that it had predicted. A wafer-thin House Republican advantage would be volatile as extreme lawmakers would wield disproportionate power in the conference. A few defections by moderates could, meanwhile, end the party’s capacity to pass bills.
Divided government would also mean two years of dysfunction, bitterness, fiscal cliffs and debt showdowns between a Republican House and the Democratic White House. Token talk of bipartisan cooperation won’t last long. Even if Democrats somehow manage to cling to the House as final results trickle in, they’d also lack the leeway to pass nation-changing laws. And whoever wins the Senate majority, the chamber will effectively be split down the middle and locked in an angry stalemate. Like America itself.
The election results pose new questions heading into the next White House campaign over the prospects of both Trump and Biden. Trump’s obsession with promoting chaos candidates in his image may yet again doom Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chances of returning as majority leader. Trump, of course, is already blaming everyone but himself as he eyes a campaign launch next week that will lack the springboard of a Republican landslide he would have claimed was all his doing. And the roaring reelection of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presented Trump with a huge potential 2024 GOP primary headache.
Biden, meanwhile, seemed unusually upbeat for a president who may soon face a tsunami of subpoenas, investigations and even possible impeachment from a GOP House. He enjoyed calling out the conventional wisdom during a White House news conference on Wednesday afternoon. “While the press and the pundits were predicting a giant red wave, it didn’t happen,” he said.
When Biden meets world leaders in the coming days in Egypt and Bali, Indonesia, he can crow about escaping the epic first-term shellacking suffered by most presidents. He also put off an immediate inquest about his suitability to carry the Democratic banner into 2024, ahead of a vacation he said he’d like to take between Thanksgiving and Christmas with First Lady Jill Biden to consider his future.
Yet a loss is a loss. And CNN exit polls show only 30% of House race voters want a president with a low-40s approval rating, who will be 80 in a few weeks, to run for reelection in a campaign that could well coincide with the recession many economists fear. Biden would prefer another finding from those same polls, however, that showed Trump – with a 39% approval rating – is even less popular.
To strategize for the two years ahead, both parties must come to an understanding of what exactly happened during a highly unusual midterm election shaped by a once-in-a-century pandemic and the aftermath of an unprecedented attempt to steal power by a defeated president in 2020.
Biden won two years ago partly on a platform of restoring normality, which he’s been unable to fully deliver despite high job growth and millions of Covid-19 inoculations. One way to look at Tuesday’s results is that voters still want the same thing and are gravitating to leaders who seem relatively moderate in relation to their parties’ extremes and are competent, good managers. Republican governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and John Sununu of New Hampshire and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin ran ahead of more radical Senate nominees in their own parties.
While Trump still wields huge power in the Republican grassroots, an endorsement from the ultimate avatar of chaos is not necessarily the way to woo a broader general electorate. This may bode ill for an ex-president planning to run again on the false premise that his second term was stolen. It was noticeable how Trump’s speeches in recent days, ostensibly in support of GOP nominees, were, as always, mostly about himself. While some base GOP voters love the show, the ex-president rarely seems to address a forward-looking program for a new term.
One reason why Tuesday’s results were inconclusive is that neither side produced a midterm message sufficiently compelling to dominate this election and to win over voters who were not already locked into their partisan bunkers.
“It is going to be stasis for two years until this question is called again,” said Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University. “That seems to be what the outcome was – it was a non-outcome outcome. Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world because I think we do need a presidential election year in which to try to establish some kind of direction on this.”
This period of suspended, if embittered, political animation presents each party with an opportunity. The deficit for Democrats is not so large that it would be impossible for the party to sweep back to a monopoly on power in 2024. The GOP could still establish a platform for a definitive win in the same election with workable congressional majorities and a presidential candidate who can capture appeal outside the “Make America Great Again” world.
But both parties need to listen to what voters really want – a possibly forlorn hope. The midterm campaign was notable for how neither Republicans nor Democrats fully embraced the frustrations of the electorate. Democrats seemed to downplay angst over inflation and ignored concerns over crime and the border. Many Republicans obsessed over vote fraud falsehoods, buttering up Trump and laying plans to investigate Biden with power they didn’t yet have.
On either side, the time appears ripe for new voices and fresh visions that could lead a political realignment. Yet the most likely outcome seems a repeat clash between the soon-to-be 80-something and the 70-something who contested the last election.
Amid the now familiar ritual of election night bleeding over into election week, Biden and Trump agreed on one thing on Wednesday: nothing needs to change based on the rebuke that they both received from voters.
Asked what he needs to do differently, the president replied: “Nothing. Because (voters are) just finding out what we’re doing. The more they know about what we’re doing the more support there is.”
Biden had a point given that the benefits of his big legislative wins, including a health care and climate bill and a jobs-creating infrastructure law, will take months and years to play out. But that won’t help voters struggling with 40-year-high inflation and high gasoline prices now.
The president also spent time lauding the miracle of democracy that saw millions of Americans peacefully cast votes. And he spoke to the possible next Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who took time out from his attempts to shore up support in his far-smaller-than-expected potential majority to have a call with the president.
But Biden also staked out non-negotiable areas, like efforts to combat global warming and protecting Medicare and Social Security, that will potentially forestall any meaningful bipartisan initiatives with a Republican House likely to be fixated on roughing him up ahead of a possible 2024 race.
The president said Wednesday that “I don’t feel any hurry” on the question of whether to run again – and Tuesday’s better-than-expected Democratic showing in the House eased the pressure for now. But if Biden cannot use what could be a chaotic GOP House as a foil, the questions about his 2024 prospects could return. An early announcement by Trump, however, would allow the president to once again carve out the contrast that paved his way to the White House two years ago.
Trump left an election night party he hosted at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Tuesday in a sour mood as several candidates he promoted like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania fizzled, leaving him open to blame, sources told CNN’s Gabby Orr and Kristen Holmes. The red wave he expected to ride into a presidential campaign launch next week failed to materialize. Worse, the strength of the DeSantis victory in Florida – which suggested the one-time Trump protégé had found a way to build a new GOP majority – raises the prospect that the former president will not be able to coast to the GOP nomination as he hoped.
One possible effect of DeSantis’ resounding reelection win could be to scare off other potential Republican hopefuls. Trump was able to prevail in 2016, in part, because opposition to him was filtered through a crowded GOP field in a primary system in which most states award delegates on a winner-take-all basis. But a smaller pack in 2024 could enable one candidate – perhaps DeSantis – to consolidate anti-Trump votes among GOP activists who prize the populist, nationalist appeal of Trumpism but may begin to view the former president’s character and antics as a general election liability.
Trump, however, insisted Wednesday that the outcome of the midterms was irrelevant to his plans for 2024 as he touted wins by Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, whom he had supported. “Why would anything change?” the ex-president told Fox News Digital.
He may be right. A Republican Party that has been simultaneously bullied and charmed by the 45th president ever since he launched his first campaign in 2015 has never found the will or the rationale to move on – even after an unprecedented insurrection against the citadel of US democracy at the Capitol in January 2021.
While ditching the twice-impeached Trump could be the logical choice for a party desperate to win back the presidency in two years, the infatuation with the former real estate magnate and reality show star has always been an emotional reflex at the grassroots. There is no sign thus far in the wake of the midterm elections that has changed.