Two-party Washington: Prepare for the worst

There is something deeply embedded in the DNA of most politicians to pivot post-election from attacks on their opponents to talk about cooperation and bipartisanship. Call it sportsmanship or pragmatism, it’s instinctive to reach out and seek common ground after a hard-fought race. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan credited his victory to his willingness to work with Democrats and claims to want more of the same. Even President Donald Trump mustered a kind word or two about Rep. Nancy Pelosi, tweeting Wednesday morning that she deserved to be elected House speaker again having “earned this great honor” and telling reporters later in the day that “hopefully, we can all work together.” Ms. Pelosi, for her part, spoke Tuesday night of the need for bipartisanship and “unity for our country.”

Well, America, we hope you enjoyed that brief moment of goodwill and national unity. It lasted a good several minutes before President Trump was back to his “enemy of the people” act with CNN. For all the talk of trying to “get things done” or looking for “common ground” or even specifically advancing measures with broad public support like investing in infrastructure or fixing health care so that pre-existing medical conditions remain covered, there’s about as much chance of the new Congress achieving detente as there is of President Trump willingly releasing his tax returns. The new Democratic House majority and the strengthened Republican Senate majority allied with President Trump are doomed to be at each other’s throats. The voters virtually guaranteed it.

If the Republican Party was a lapdog to Mr. Trump before, it’s only more so now. Gone are pesky critics like Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. In their place are Trump acolytes. The president’s political barnstorming might not have done much for Republican candidates in the House, but it certainly had an impact on the Senate majority. This is one time when the president’s claim that fidelity to him and his agenda would be rewarded by voters turned out not to be so far from the truth (unless your name is Dean Heller). Move over, Mitch McConnell. This is a Senate that is destined to take its cues from the White House, which means combativeness is back in style.

Meanwhile, House Democrats have made their own promises. One of them, also repeated by Ms. Pelosi on election night, is to provide a check on the administration and investigate possible wrongdoing. If the day after the 116th Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings isn’t issuing subpoenas from his position as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — including for those presidential tax returns — it can only be because a snowstorm has shut down D.C. Indeed, President Trump has already threatened to sic his personal Senate on the House: “If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level,” Mr. Trump tweeted Wednesday.

One imagines that the Democrats will, indeed, move forward with legislation that has broad support among their constituents. If they are smart, they won’t try for something as costly or as ambitious as single-payer health care but will attempt something more modest and narrowly focused that assures Americans are covered by health insurance if they have preexisting conditions or legislation to cap drug prices. And what happens next? GOP senators will push each other aside to be the first to denounce it. To do otherwise would require admitting failure on health care over the last two years. In his White House news conference midday Wednesday, President Trump sounded like a man ready to deal, claiming the GOP victories in the Senate gave him a comfortable enough majority to get the job done. But since when does a more partisan makeup make a chamber of Congress less partisan? Instead, the Senate majority will likely attempt to advance its own pro-Trump agenda such as building a wall at the border with Mexico or limiting birthright citizenship or other anti-immigrant policies that would be dead on arrival in the Democratically-controlled House.

Oh, and let’s not forget that special counsel Robert Mueller isn’t finished yet. His final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election is destined to rock Washington — and trigger even more investigations, at least on the House side. Depending on their findings, impeachment proceedings are hardly beyond the pale, which is not usually a good step toward inside-the-beltway comity. As angry and over-the-top as the campaign rhetoric of 2018 might have been, it would take an optimist on a scale not generally found outside fairy tales to expect that the nature of political discourse in 2019 will be any different. The midterm election resolved nothing, it only guaranteed divided government and continued dysfunction in the nation’s capital.

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