Analysis

Prepare for a dismal, dirty journey to 2020: Keith Boag

It is the exhausting reality of American politics that as the dark and divisive midterm campaign has finally drawn to its close, the dark and divisive presidential campaign is about to begin.

The next U.S. campaign season will be most influenced by what happened on Tuesday

Voters arrive at a polling station at the St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Lansing, Mich., on Tuesday. (Jeff Kowalsky/Reuters)

It is the exhausting reality of American politics that as the dark and divisive midterm campaign has finally drawn to its close, the dark and divisive presidential campaign is about to begin.

If the final weeks of the last race are an indication of what to expect in the next one — and if the example is a television ad promoted by the president of the United States that was so racist NBC, Facebook and even the broadcasting wing of Trumpism, Fox News, finally had to pull it — then it will be a dismal and dirty journey to the 2020 election.

American politics didn't get prettier this season.

Still, the coming campaign will be most influenced by what happened Tuesday night. It was an important victory for Democrats no matter how Donald Trump spins it. They have power in Washington again and that will have real consequences for him.

The Democrats intend to do what the Republicans wouldn't — investigate the president.

"He's going to learn that he's not above the law," Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, said on CNN shortly after the midterm results were clear.

The first step reportedly will be to get his tax returns. The House ways and means committee will ask for them. If, as is likely, the request is refused, the committee will demand them, and that demand seems inevitably headed toward the Supreme Court.

Trump supporter and former House speaker Newt Gingrich has already anticipated this, saying a Supreme Court case on whether Trump must release his tax returns will be a test of whether the bitter fight over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the top court was worth it.

An extraordinarily candid statement, to put it gently.

Democratic supporters cheer the election results at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Risk to Democrats

The House intelligence committee — currently chaired by Trump's most loyal defenceman, Rep. Devin Nunes — will have a new Democratic chair who can reopen the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

Other Democrats might look at Trump's businesses to see how they mesh with his public policy decisions or to get a sense of whether and to what degree they're benefiting from his presidency.

There could be an investigation into whether there was really anything beyond politics in the decision to send as many as 15,000 troops to the border at the time when Trump was exaggerating the threat of a caravan of migrants trudging from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border.

There is a risk to Democrats in all this. Endless hearings and probes into conduct and character televised day after day could define Democrats as the party of investigations or the party of the subpoena, and that could make them look like nothing more than the party of anti-Trump.

Plus, they'd be putting the country through a wrenching experience.

U.S. army soldiers put up razor wire fence for an encampment to be used by the military near the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas, on Sunday. (Delcia Lopez/Reuters)

Blue ripple

One lesson Democrats seemed to have learned through the campaign was the limited usefulness of being obsessively anti-Trump. They spent more of their advertising budgets on health care than on anything else by far. They avoided antagonizing soft Republicans by being vigorously anti-Trump — even when that was what was in their hearts. And it seems to have worked.

Now, with the platform of the House, they have an opportunity to define themselves as standing for the things that people truly care about. They could, for instance, craft an immigration reform bill to make it clear that they have a plan to deal with that thorny issue and that they're not, as the president has said, simply for open borders, amnesty and automatic citizenship for illegals.

Such a bill would almost certainly fail in the Senate, but that's not the point. The point would be to be clear about what they stand for just as Republicans made it clear what they stood for when they repeatedly passed bills to repeal Obamacare.

There is already a tendency to say that Democrats should be chastened by the midterm results because their blue wave amounted to only a ripple. But that understates the structural difficulties of their challenge.

As expected, the Democrats were handicapped by gerrymandered districts in some states and a wastefully dense concentration of their voters in urban areas. The result looks like a Democratic landslide in the national popular vote — at this writing the margin is estimated at between eight and nine percentage points — but a less impressive victory when adding up the number of seats that turned from Republican to Democratic.

The most consequential event of the fall campaign was the contentious confirmation of Kavanaugh, and that might well have made the difference in the Senate. The lone red-state Democrat who voted for Kavanaugh, Joe Manchin, won his seat, but the red-state Democrats who voted against him — Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp — all lost theirs.

Trump appeared to revel in the Senate win, tweeting the fawning quotes of his admirers such as the one that said "this guy has magic coming out of his ears."

Trump's new reality is quite different, of course, and his future will be nothing like what he's experienced so far. He may actually need magic coming out of his ears in the New Year — what in Washington will be called season three of the Trump presidency.