From the Director: Divided government and the 'Art of the Deal'
There are challenges and opportunities for Democrats and President Trump
Both President Trump and Nancy Pelosi say they are open to working together. There are strong reasons to believe that Democrats lack any incentive to work with President Trump…and vice versa. Still, as the Miller Center explored with the Hoover Institution and James Madison’s Montpelier, and as our Practitioner Senior Fellow Mary Kate Cary discussed in her Bipodisan podcast, conventional wisdom is not always right.
Much will depend on what our two national parties took away from the midterms.
Was there a blue wave? Yes. Democrats picked up 39 House seats (at last count)—slightly larger than expected. This blue wave was not as big as GOP waves that washed over Presidents Obama and Clinton in their first midterms (61 and 58 seats, respectively), though it was bigger than smaller waves that hit Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
House Democratic candidates nationwide beat Republicans by 6%, or 52% to 46%. That 6% gap tracks closely with President Trump’s smallest disapprove/approve deficit to date. If this is the high-water mark of Trump’s popularity, then he faces difficult math in 2020.
A red wall in the Senate? Institutionally, not electorally. The GOP picked up two Senate seats. The president’s tough talk on border security and the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation probably helped with wins in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. Those GOP wins offset GOP losses in Arizona and Nevada.
A slightly larger GOP majority in the Senate will make it easier to confirm conservative judges and cabinet members—including any new Supreme Court vacancies and Trump’s next attorney general. Republican senators will help the president craft budgets and negotiate with Democrats. A GOP Senate can provide a bulwark against House Democratic investigations and oversight.
Still, with a roaring economy and a map favoring Republicans, the GOP could have done better. Republicans lost by more than 3 million combined votes (or about 12% of the 24 million total) in seven key battleground Senate races. Four of those states, essential to President Trump’s 2016 victory, went solid blue in 2018: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
A polarized electorate? A narrowing GOP versus Democratic diversity. The GOP is narrowing into a smaller party of Trump that is more male and rural, and less well-educated. Most Democratic pickups came at the expense of moderate Republicans—an endangered species. Most were in suburban districts, especially in presidential battleground states. A few hardline GOP incumbents lost in formerly conservative strongholds such as Orange County, California, and Chesterfield County, Virginia.
The gender gap also widened, to the benefit of Democrats. College-educated women led the anti-Trump charge, favoring Democrats by 22% and ushering in 14 new House Democratic women. Some, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), are more liberal. Many, such as Abigail Spanberger (VA), are pragmatic centrists. So are the two new women Senators, Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and Jacky Rosen (NV), who offset the losses of Heidi Heitkamp (ND) and Claire McCaskill (MO).
Gridlock or deal-making? Both…perhaps.The president’s best chance to improve his public standing will be a deal with Democrats on infrastructure, prescription drug pricing, and/or criminal justice reform, where his views defy party lines. The “Art of the Deal” in divided government requires finding moderate House Democrats in swing states and districts who want to prove they can get things done.
The president likely needs a deal more than Democrats do. House Democrats are primed for oversight and investigations. They will investigate suspected Russian influence in the 2016 election, as well as alleged abuses by cabinet officials. They will also peer deeply into agencies and policies buoyed by the GOP, from Homeland Security to the EPA.
There’s also the much-anticipated wild card: a report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Depending on what it says, House Democrats will have to make two calculations: whether to pursue impeachment (where a Senate conviction would require a two-thirds majority) and how much their political base will allow them to cooperate with the president on legislation.
As far as the president is concerned, any deal will require him to tone down his rhetoric. Personal attacks will make it hard for Democrats to work with him, and also harder for him to draw Independents back to the GOP.
Both parties will need to keep the security of the nation in mind. Both need to preserve the option of cooperating should another economic shock hit the country. We currently are at the ten-year mark of the 2008–2009 financial crisis—where an outgoing Republican president, an incoming Democratic president, and Congress all worked together.
Both parties also will need to find common ground on managing global affairs, where the gap between the parties also remains wide.
The Miller Center will stay the course. With history as our guide, our faculty and staff will publish, speak, and host events on immediate questions. Upcoming conferences and weekly events will explore partisanship, the economy, world affairs, and the presidency itself.
Our scholars will draw on our unique oral histories of previous administrationsand our transcriptions of the secret Oval Office recordings of earlier presidents. We will take advantage of faculty from across the University of Virginia, as well as practitioners from recent presidential administrations. As difficult as it may seem, we will continue to bring together leaders from both parties not only to discuss issues but to find common ground and practical solutions.
We are also working to leverage the broader intellectual and programmatic strengths and resources of UVA. Following the lead of UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences, we are collaborating on the Democracy Initiative to address the most pressing challenges to our civic identity and to democracy worldwide. We have recruited an exceptional leader for that effort, Melody Barnes, who formerly served as White House domestic policy advisor and is vice chair of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation board of trustees.
As part of this work, we will host a major conference to help celebrate UVA’s Bicentennial in 2019: “Presidential Ideas Festival: Democracy in Dialogue” from May 21–23, along with partners across UVA, Charlottesville, and beyond.
We hope you will join us for what promises to be an adventurous ride.