Editorials

No tidal wave but a tide has turned

Tuesday’s U.S. midterm election results were almost exactly as anticipated. Democrats reclaimed one house of Congress while the GOP strengthened its grip on the other. President Donald Trump claimed victory, but the outcome is anything but a win for him. He and his administration will now be subject to intense scrutiny and investigation. The world must expect less from Washington during the two remaining years of Trump’s first term as he and his team face genuine oversight for the first time.

The final results from Tuesday’s vote are not yet in, but the contours are clear. The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives and the Republicans expanded their control of the Senate. The Democratic victory was not a tidal wave, as some had hoped, but the outcome should restore faith in election polling, confidence that was badly shaken after Trump’s surprising win in the 2016 presidential ballot.

In a brief tweet, Trump called the results a “tremendous success,” but they were anything but. Democrats pledged throughout the campaign that if they secured a majority and the accompanying committee chairmanships, they would restore Congress as a check on the executive branch, a role that was seemingly abdicated by the GOP during the first two years of Trump’s tenure. Adam Schiff, a House Democrat who will likely chair the chamber’s intelligence committee, explained some weeks ago that “we will be able to get answers the Republicans were unwilling to pursue.” Indeed, in many important ways, Republican members of the House saw their mission as protecting the White House from scrutiny. The president and his administration must now prepare for intense oversight of their operations.

The result is likely to be paralysis in Washington as Democrats demand that administration officials defend their actions in oversight hearings. Last summer, the GOP circulated a list of dozens of different investigations they expected a Democratic House to pursue — it was produced to motivate Republic voters. Many of the issues are typical policy matters that opposition parties examine, such as how controversial measures, such as the travel ban or family separations at the border, were formulated. But some of them are potentially criminal concerns — such as conflicts of interest; several departmental inspectors general are already at work — that will distract policymakers and demand much of their time and attention.

One issue of immense concern for the administration is the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with that campaign. The House committee examining this matter has been chaired by a Trump stalwart, and appeared to prioritize protecting the president over carrying out an independent analysis of what transpired. That will end with a Democratic Party-controlled House. While the most important investigation into this issue is that of special counsel Robert Mueller, the House effort provided valuable cover for the administration and helped validate claims that Mueller was conducting a partisan witch hunt. It will be harder to make that case if Congress assumes a more neutral role.

The results will have little direct impact on foreign policy. The U.S. Constitution gives far greater power in this area to the president and the congressional role is restricted. Democrats will intensify scrutiny of U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts and will demand greater justification from the administration as it calls for increased defense spending. A Democratic-controlled House will be more inclined to challenge the way the president conducts his foreign policy — his penchant for unilateralism — even though some of its members may well be sympathetic to Trump’s goals.

A similar dynamic may occur on trade policy. Ironically, Trump’s positions on international trade, in particular his call for greater protection of U.S. labor, are traditionally those of the Democratic Party. Japan can hope for no respite from the Trump administration’s calls for bilateral trade talks. Republicans are concerned that Trump may recognize that convergence of views and make deals with the Democrats, a move that would realize Trump’s campaign promise to govern as an independent, shedding the orthodoxy of both left and right.

Congress will also be affected by the replacement of GOP moderates with more extreme and “Trump-like” members. The center continues to erode in U.S. politics, which makes the prospect of compromise among Democrats and Republicans, or the White House and Congress, even more unlikely. Hopefully, the Democrats will not copy the GOP playbook and resort to opposition for opposition’s sake. The U.S. Constitution was designed to promote checks and balances through divided government. The world must prepare for a diminished U.S. presence as its parties struggle to find issues they can agree upon — a list that seems to grow shorter every day.