The Midterm Election Is Not a Referendum on Trump


(Alex Wong/Getty Images).

On November 6, Americans across the country will be marking their ballots. Up for the taking is a third of the U.S. Senate, every House seat, and a multitude of state and local positions and propositions. Amidst the backdrop of the 2016 election, Democrats hope to overcome the debilitation that came with a wholly Republican federal government in a “blue wave” that sees control of the country swing back into their hands.

Democrats have good reason to hope: Politico confirms that most midterm elections prove a boon to the challenger and a disappointment to the incumbent, with polls suggesting that this midterm will be no exception. The New York Times calls this ‘An Election About Everything’; NBC News headlines with ‘It’s All About Trump Now’; President Trump himself states, “I am on the ticket.” With the Democrats having a six out of seven chance of capturing the House, the post-election period will likely be met with the proclamation that the country chose to repudiate the President and the platform on which he ran.

Such an interpretation of these results would not only be wrong—it would be a repeat of all the mistakes that led the media, political scientists, pollsters, and Hillary Clinton to be so shocked the day after the conclusion of the 2016 presidential election.

Contrary to the claims of the president, and those of the New York Times, Donald Trump is not on the ballot: the congressional GOP and Republican policies are. In contrast to the populist message that allowed Trump to crush 16 other candidates in the presidential primaries, Republicans focus their campaigning efforts on an incredibly elite-driven platform that emphasizes tax cuts. Support for President Trump and the signature issues of his campaign—immigration, trade, and an end to foreign entanglements—by the people who voted for him remains unchanged; their willingness to cast their vote for a Republican Congress that has all but ignored these issues cannot accurately gauge their support for the president.

Most of Trump’s policy proposals—or, rather, the policy proposals of the Trump campaign—were in line with the standard Republican agenda: ending Obamacare, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and pouring ever more money into the military. Virtually no Republican apparatchik opposed Trump on these issues. Conversely, virtually no voters chose him over, say Jeb!, due to his position on the corporate tax rate. What separated Trump from the pack, apart from the memorable nicknames he assigns to opponents, was a three-word chant: “build the wall!”

Yet, over the two years separating November 2016 from November 2018, most of what President Trump has achieved would likely have also been pushed through under a President Jeb Bush. Jeb, or one of the other generic Republicans that ran, may not have won the general election like Trump had, but the substantive policies that would have been enacted under such a presidency would not be substantially different: a judge vetted by Federalist Society would be nominated for the Supreme Court, taxes would decrease for big businesses, and the U.S. would keep on bombing Syria.

Of course, Trump is no Jeb. Whereas the other contenders might have capitulated on the Kavanaugh nomination or yielded to a DACA legalization bill, Trump stood his ground. Nor would his travel bans have been implemented, nor would NAFTA have been renegotiated. Still, under his administration, the status quo remains much the same as at the time of his election. For example, his ‘wall,’ as unveiled by Homeland Secretary Nielsen, is a two-and-a-half-mile section of replacement fencing. And, despite his rhetoric, Trump neither ordered the Department of Defense to construct a wall, nor has he forced Congress’s hand to fund the wall independently, nor seized remittances to Mexico for use in building the wall.

Consequently, the recently intensified focus placed on immigration by President Trump to inspire support for GOP candidates leaves the base that voted for him uninspired: why bother voting if nothing changes? Trump’s base of supporters can excuse him for failing to deliver on his campaign promises—Congress held him back—but with majorities in both the House and Senate, Congressional Republicans cannot credibly claim that their failure to enact the agenda on which President Trump won was anyone’s fault but their own.

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