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The existential stakes in the midterm elections

September 25,2018 15:10

In the last half-century, no off-year election has portended more than this. The stakes include the future of Donald Trump's presidency, and the nature of the presidency itself. Who controls our bifurcated Congress could profoundly affect America's ...


In the last half-century, no off-year election has portended more than this.
The stakes include the future of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the nature of the presidency itself. Who controls our bifurcated Congress could profoundly affect America’s constitutional democracy.
The lynchpin of Democratic hopes — retaking the House — is far from assured; generic polling favoring Democrats ignores a map skewed by gerrymandering and demographic sorting. The economy remains steady, and Trump’s maniacal omnipresence has yet to provoke global havoc. For Democrats, failure would ignite a row between moderates and progressives potentially toxic in 2020.
Should the House flip, the GOP’s prospective bulwark is the Senate. Whereas but three Republican-held seats are vulnerable — in red states Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee — five Democratic incumbents face are imperiled in bright-red Indiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Missouri, and volatile Florida. Absent further Republican slippage, the required gain of two seats is akin to Democrats drawing an inside straight. Their only wildcard is Beto O’Rourke, who is running against Senator Ted Cruz in Texas.

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Continued GOP control of the Senate could enable Trump to name more Supreme Court justices and accelerate his makeover of the federal courts. A majority in both houses would license Trump and the GOP to shred Obamacare and the social safety net; undermine the Department of Justice; weaponize racism; and quash oversight and investigation. It would, in short, accelerate a rogue president’s pre-fascist attack on our social and constitutional fabric.
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Two decades after Brett Kavanaugh drafted salacious questions for Bill Clinton, the spotlight is now on Kavanaugh.
But suppose Democrats retake the House. This would transform the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Under Republican control, OGR gave Trump de facto immunity from investigation. Democrats would issue a salutary fusillade of subpoenas covering Trump’s tax returns; his family’s and cabinet’s unethical predations; his degradation of the EPA and Department of Education; his abuse of security clearances; and his personal criminality — cementing them in public consciousness.
Under the reprehensible Republican Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee spearheaded Trump’s efforts to sabotage Robert Mueller. The savvy new Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff, would reinvigorate the committee’s investigation of Trump and Russia; recall the mendacious Donald Trump Jr. to reprise his contact with Russians; and build the case for protecting Mueller. The result could be an existential race between mass enlightenment and constitutional conflagration — provoked by a president who knows that unimpeded scrutiny would destroy him.
The Senate may dictate the outcome. A Democratic majority would strive to stymie Trump from replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a puppet sworn to truncate the Russia investigation. A Republican majority — fearing a base for whom Trump supersedes our Constitution — would support his attack on the rule of law until and unless this threatens their own survival.
Past Election Day, Sessions’ tenure can be measured in hours. The unresolved question is Trump’s means of execution.
A Republican Senate would confirm any plausible puppet who gave meretricious lip service to investigative integrity. A Democratic Senate would not.
If thwarted, Trump has two choices: Appoint a puppet interim successor from those already confirmed for cabinet positions, as required by statute — subject to the legal question of whether a firing, as opposed to a resignation, gives Trump such authority. Or, more naked, install an attorney general by recess appointment whose tenure would last until the end of the Senate session — January 2019, just long enough to terminate Mueller and the investigation, empowering Trump’s autocracy.
In either case, the fissures in our politics would prove far deeper than those of Watergate. Then Democrats controlled both houses; some moderate Republicans chose duty over fealty. Ultimately, Nixon acquiesced to the rule of law; in his immutable nihilism and narcissism, Trump would destroy it to save himself.
What remedy then? Only the belated reassertion of congressional authority: investigation and impeachment. A Democratic House could pursue the facts and write articles of impeachment; a Democratic Senate might push impeachment until invertebrate Republicans see Mike Pence as their salvation.
Thus may November change America’s future — for good or ill.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.
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