Unlike most countries, the United States holds legislative elections midway through a president’s term. As a result the country tends to be in campaign mode most of the time. Indeed the 2020 presidential campaign has started and the Democrats are beginning to think about their prospects for the presidential nomination.
If there is one generalization that is commonly made about the midterm elections it is that the president’s party usually loses seats in Congress. In 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2014 the opposition party did well and control of one or both houses changed hands. So 2018 was no exception. However, the Republicans, who benefited from a favorable Senate map, did manage to hold their majority in the upper House. Consequently both President Donald Trump and the Democratic congressional leadership could take credit for bucking the trend (Trump and the Senate) or flipping more than the average number of seats (Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi). As a result it is hard to say which way the wind is blowing. Both sides will claim that it is blowing at their backs. Perhaps Bob Dylan can be prevailed upon to explain the wind direction.
Most of the prominent issues were domestic: immigration (especially illegal), medical insurance, the economy, the Kavanaugh matter, and, most of all, Donald Trump. Voters held intense views and seemed disinclined to compromise. Matters such as tariffs and international trade agreements, foreign policy, NAFTA, and relations with Canada did not appear to matter much during the campaign.
In general, Democrats oppose whatever Trump is doing with regard to foreign affairs, but that subject does not count for much in midterm years. Voters seemed bewildered by a multiplicity of overseas issues, including Russia, China, Korea, Iran, international trade, the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi murder. As for policy toward Israel and the prospects of an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement, there has been a notable drop in support for the Jewish state among Democrats. Several of the new faces in the House Democratic caucus are overtly hostile to Israel; AIPAC has its work cut out for it. Moreover, American Jewry is divided about many aspects of policy toward Israel, with the Orthodox being strongly pro-Republican and the non-Orthodox overwhelmingly lined up behind the Democrats. Indeed about 80 percent of American Jews voted Democratic. That does not augur well for the future.
In addition to Israel-related matters, the resurgence of anti-Semitism was driven home by the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre shortly before the election. Even before that horrific event, data showed an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes, which the Democrats blamed on Trump. Although it is not fair to blame him, there is little doubt that racist groups have come out of the woodwork in recent years in response to nationalist rhetoric.
The heated antagonism that characterized the campaign is likely to carry on right through the election. This is not a time in which one can calmly contemplate the issues that American voters will confront in less than two years.
Dr. Harold M. Waller is a CIJR Academic Fellow