As news of the Republican midterm defeat continues to trickle in, it is becoming more apparent that 2018 was a blue anti-Trump wave after all. The Republicans made small gains in the Senate, thanks to an abnormally friendly map, but the GOP lost the House as well as seven gubernatorial seats and numerous seats in state legislatures across the country. How we got to this point is remarkably similar to how Barack Obama led the Democrats to lose more than a thousand seats in his eight years.
As I have written in the past, Donald Trump has echoed many of President Obama’s mistakes and has now yielded similar results. The bottom line is that both Barack Obama, who campaigned as a moderate Democrat, and Donald Trump, who was elected with the support of a minority of voters, both governed as though they had a broad mandate to enact a laundry list of wishes from their most partisan supporters when what voters really wanted was for both parties to work together.
Barack Obama began his administration with staggering popularity and goodwill. Two years later, he had squandered much of his approval by forcing through an unpopular health care reform law against the will of the people. Opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the way that Democrats enacted the law were prime factors in the Tea Party wave of 2010.
Ironically, Obamacare was unpopular when passed by the Democrats and promises to repeal and replace the law played a major role in the rise of the Republican Congress since 2010. Unfortunately, President Trump and Republicans made a hash of healthcare reform. In fact, Republicans handled health care reform so badly that they managed to do what Obama and the Democrats could not do: They convinced voters that the Affordable Care Act was a good thing.
Obamacare’s protections for pre-existing conditions are so popular that the law directly contributed to the loss of a Republican Senate seat in Arizona. Just before the election, Republican candidate Martha McSally told Sean Hannity that she was getting her “ass kicked” over her vote to reform Obamacare because Democrats were invoking fear that Republicans wanted to eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions. It now appears that McSally has lost her Senate race to Democrat Kirsten Sinema.
In addition to healthcare, the Trump Administration has adopted a number of other unpopular policies as well. The tax reform law that caused the economy to surge is still not popular with voters. Trump’s policy of separating illegal immigrants from their children was widely unpopular. Likewise, Trump’s personal behavior consistently drives down his approval ratings.
In 2010, Democrats took a “shellacking,” in President Obama’s words. Republicans gained six Senate seats, 63 House seats, and six governorships as well as doing well in down-ballot races for state and local offices. The GOP won control of the House but, like Democrats this year, were unable to win the Senate. For Republicans, it took two more elections until the party finally won the Senate in 2014. Now, rather than building on those hard-won gains, Republicans are giving them back.
To say that the 2018 wave was not as large as the 2010 wave misses the point. Democrats had more seats to give up than Republicans did. Even after losing six Senate seats in 2010, Democrats controlled 53 seats including two Democrat-leaning independents. The House results in 2018 will leave Democrats within a few seats of the 242 that Republicans controlled after 2010.
The bigger picture is that 2018 was a wholesale rejection of President Trump by moderate and suburban voters. USA Today reported that more than 80 suburban counties voted more Democrat this year than in 2016. In 20 of these counties, Democrats saw a double-digit surge. CNN’s exit polls show that Republicans lost female voters as well as minorities, the middle class, and college-educated voters. Republicans lost moderate voters by 26 points this year compared with eight points in 2014.
President Trump, like Barack Obama, has an abrasive style that is much-loved by his ardent supporters but few others. Like Obama, Trump tends to divide up the electorate and focus on turning out his base rather than on winning converts. Also, like Obama, President Trump is apparently incapable of reaching across the aisle to form a bipartisan legislative coalition, preferring instead to use (or overuse) his executive authority to make small, temporary changes rather than sweeping, permanent ones.
Republicans may look at all that and say, “So what? Obama got re-elected.”
That’s true, but Obama also had a large victory than President Trump, who lost the popular vote and only eked out an Electoral College win with skin-of-the-teeth victories in several states. Obama had much more support that he could lose. And lose it he did, just not quite in large enough numbers to lose the 2012 election.
Up until now, Republicans have maintained a narrative that President Trump’s economic success will overcome problems with his personal style. After the midterms, it is painfully obvious that this view is not true. President Trump is overwhelmingly popular with Republicans and unpopular with everyone else. That leaves the Republican Party in a difficult spot.
The GOP has three different options for moving forward. First, its members can convince President Trump to change course. Trump could possibly reach out to the new Congress and become the dealmaker that he claimed to be in 2016. The two parties could work together to resolve the issues that confront the country. Obviously, this won’t happen.
The second alternative is for Republicans to distance themselves from Trump and try to repair the damage with moderate voters. One problem here is that Donald Trump does not take rejection well. Distancing oneself from the president will bring forth the full wrath and fury of the First Tweeter. A second problem is that many polls suggest that today’s Republican voters are more loyal to Donald Trump than to traditional Republican ideals. Unless Republican voters sour on Trump, most Republicans officials who oppose him are likely to be on the losing end of the fight.
Finally, the third option is for Republicans to say, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead,” and go right on doing exactly what they are doing. This is the option that Democrats chose after 2010 and, given President Trump’s claim that the midterms were a “big victory” for Republicans, it seems likely that the GOP will follow this course now.
If the parallels between the Obama and Trump Administrations persist, Trump might be re-elected by following Obama’s model of doing very little aside of issuing Executive Orders and blaming the opposition for their obstructionism. However, given Mr. Trump’s slim victory margin in 2016 and the GOP’s lack of success in the “blue wall” states this year, it seems more likely that the parallels will diverge as the president fails to win a second term.
If President Trump and the Republicans realize the error that they are making, they may be able to break the pattern before the party suffers a series of Obama-like defeats. Although they would have to stand up to factions of the base on issues such as immigration, if Republicans can come together with Democrats to create bipartisan solutions, they might be able to win back their majority. More importantly, they would be helping the country and doing the job that the voters hired them to do.