Witcover: Trump rolls the dice, making the midterms all about him

President Donald Trump has accepted the Democrats' challenge to convert next month's midterm congressional elections into a referendum on his presidency.

Never one to deal in subtlety, he has instructed his political flock in rallies in key Rust Belt and Southern states that his name may not be on the ballot, but he'll be running all the same, to maintain the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

The GOP now holds the Senate by only two seats, but the more critical race appears to be in the House, where the Democrats need a pickup of 23 to gain control, and many Republican districts for various reasons are in peril.

For voters in both parties, the House races are of particular interest because achieving a Democratic majority could open a path to impeachment against the president. According to the Constitution, that process must begin in the House if any charges are voted on and approved by the full body.

A Democratic majority would also empower House committees to subpoena the president and others to testify or supply relevant material in the matter. A debatable question now is whether a sitting president can be compelled to testify before a federal grand jury, or in the current case to the Justice Department's special counsel investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

With most public-opinion polls indicating that less than a majority of voters support Mr. Trump, the Democrats are betting on the midterms to slow or halt his agenda, which has been an unorthodox mix of standard conservative policies and his personal whims and prejudices.

But he seems just as confident now that his personal base will continue to endorse his presidency, especially on the economy, which has been humming along at an impressive clip.

Many Democratic critics warn that counting on anti-Trump disillusionment may not be enough to turn the tide, absent a more positive Democratic agenda. So many of the faithful are banking on a stauncher defense of the traditional party social safety net — Social Security, Medicare and the much-maligned Obamacare.

But in this era of Mr. Trump's dominance of the public debate, the president undeniably is betting on his personal ability and willingness to have that debate determined on his terms. The old Republican establishment in Congress seems hogtied by his brash, regularly untruthful and impulsive acts of political leadership.

The issue was joined late last week when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cited a growing federal deficit approaching $1 trillion, which he blamed dubiously on expanding social-safety net programs. The president meanwhile called on his cabinet members to cut their department budgets by 5 percent, excepting the Pentagon.

At the same time, Mr. Trump has avoided the political snake pit of cuts in the social safety net, telling the Associated Press last week, "I'm not touching Social Security." Yet Mr. McConnell in an interview with Reuters hinted his party might try to resume its failed effort to kill Obamacare should the Republicans gain strength in the midterms.

The president and Democratic leaders, however, seem to have agreed that the Nov. 6 elections in the nation's 435 congressional districts and for one-third of Senate seats will first and foremost be all about Donald Trump. As he races from state to state on his own behalf, individual Republican candidates will be struggling to defend or create identities of their own in this commanding shadow.

Not all of them are dying to have him in their districts, uncertain whether his presence will put them over the top with the local voters or will turn out to be a reminder of his personal foibles and biases, especially among women voters. Also, Democrats have outraised the opposition in campaign funds in their zeal to get rid of Mr. Trump.

But who dares to pull in the welcome mat from under the president in these tumultuous days? While he has told the AP it won't be his fault if the House majority is lost, he insists, "I think I'm helping people." Thus does he draw the midterm battle lines.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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