It is important to remember, as partisan operatives and bendable pundits settle on a common story about the outcome of the 2018 midterms, that until Donald Trump became president, nearly everyone engaged in this spin doctoring at one point wrote or said that Republicans had gerrymandered the House so badly, Democrats would be locked out of power until after the 2020 Census.
Against that backdrop, the fact that Democrats have won control of the House—for the first time since 2010, in a midterm-election year and a strong economy, with a popular-vote margin resembling wave elections in 1994, 2006, 2008, and 2010—speaks volumes about the country’s impression of Trump’s presidency, and unified Republican government.
The gerrymanders might prevent Democrats from winning a historically large House majority, but the popular showing—the fact that they will control the House at all—is thunderous evidence that Trump has awakened a once-listless majority, and that the impunity with which Republicans allowed him to misgovern and loot the country has come to an end.
The news is not all terrible for Republicans. In the closing days of the campaign, Trump seemed to accept that Democrats had put the House out of reach, and scrambled to states he won in 2016 to protect the GOP’s Senate majority, which will now grow.
Republicans will continue to stack the courts, warping the democracy well into the future against popular will, and, should we reach that crossroads, they can also block an impeachment conviction. The Constitution doesn’t plainly require the Senate to try an impeached official, which means a serial norm violator like Mitch McConnell could spare Trump’s presidency with an abrupt partisan change to precedent.
But nothing McConnell does can change the fact that Democrats will have real oversight power, the power to obtain Trump’s tax returns, to subpoena executive branch records, and give form and detail to the breathtaking corruption of this administration. They can complete the vetting of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, get inside the books of the Trump organization, and devote good faith and resources to a real, truth-seeking Russia investigation.
That last point is critical because, in the immediate term, I expect Trump to fire inconvenient senior officials, particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions—and possibly even try to end or destroy the integrity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Democrats won the House but they won’t take the House until January. In the intervening lame duck period Trump can do incredible damage, and Republicans can let him get away with it.
To the extent he is successful, it will set a dark tone for the nature of conflict between the White House and the Congress. Under the cover of the coming lame duck session, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rash of resignations, from both the White House and the cabinet departments, of officials who know their conduct can not withstand scrutiny. Too many have reveled in an environment of unchecked corruption, or lied under oath, and many of them will choose to shrink into obscurity on K Street or conservative institutional sinecures rather than become focal points of sustained congressional scrutiny.
It’s likely that those who stay will be historically uncooperative—particularly if Republicans signal, in the coming weeks, that they’re still prepared to provide the administration reflexive cover. Trump will order subordinates to defy subpoenas and to refuse to comply with statutes—starting first with the clear law requiring the treasury secretary to turn over an individual’s tax returns upon the request of the House Ways and Means committee. Expect Democrats to be forced into endless lawfare. They will have to wrestle with whether and how to enforce Congress’s will against those they find to be in contempt, and may even find their power frustrated by Trump’s own Supreme Court appointees.
In the legislative realm, Democrats won’t be able to enact the biggest items on the progressive agenda, but they will share budgeting power with Republicans, and thus be able to secure certain objectives and protect programs Republicans want to destroy. Obamacare repeal is dead, as is Trump’s ambition to build a wall along the southern border. Republicans won’t be able to pay for their 2017 corporate tax cut with Medicaid funding. Social Security is safe again.
But where they can’t force their will on Republicans, Democrats will be able to compete with Trump’s megaphone in a way that was unavailable to them these past two years. Control of the House floor will give Democrats agenda-setting power, and they can thus force Trump to answer for his opposition to popular priorities like a minimum wage increase and public infrastructure spending, rather than watch helplessly as he distracts the public from his serial governing failures with scapegoating and racist incitement. Unfortunately his answer to these kinds of provocations may be to foment more international crises, and if he does, Senate Republicans will be on the hook for them, because in many arenas of foreign affairs, only concerted, bipartisan legislative action can wrest control from the president.
The magnitude of the coming political change is extraordinary in large measure because Republicans turned the legislature into a kind of protection racket for the president. More than abdicate their constitutional obligations, they abused their power in ways that will make proper oversight feel revolutionary. The lurch back toward proper checks and balances will be whiplash inducing, but we will really just be taking baby steps back toward standards of ethics and normalcy that people resent Trump and his enablers for trampling. True justice for all of Trump’s depredations will remain out of reach for now, but poetic justice has arrived.