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Witcover: 2018 will be a critical year in American politics

President Trump responded to Stephen Bannon's comments Jan. 3, calling Bannon “a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination.” (Jan. 3, 2018) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Every new year is said optimistically to offer a clean slate for the nation to address its problems. But the cold truth is that in any new year, political life plods on much as before unless it coincides with the start of a new presidency.

This year may prove a distinct exception. As 2018 rolled in, the United States was awash in deep public conflict between the millions of voters who cast ballots in 2016 for Donald Trump and the millions more who voted against him but lost out in the Electoral College.

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That outcome revived the lament of those who supported earlier candidates who lost in similar fashion, but no serious attempt has been made to get rid of that controversial feature of American presidential elections, despite of the shock of Mr. Trump's victory and the subsequent chaos of his first year in power.

With only a single major legislative achievement to show for his efforts -- the radical, controversial tax reform bill -- and a crass personal style that beguiled many but repulsed many others, Mr. Trump is sure to inspire a second year of similar division and partisanship.

The first Trump year has gone forward amid a dominant news focus on a federal investigation that could challenge the very continuation of his presidency, assuring that he will remain uniquely in the center of the nation's political conversation throughout 2018.

While continuing to insist there was "no collusion" between himself or his campaign organization and Russian government agents who meddled in our election, the issue remains a menacing cloud over the new year. Defenders have sought to discredit the investigation by questioning the presence within the FBI of anti-Trump agents, obliging Special Counsel Robert Mueller to remove them while relentlessly pressing on.

The circumstances assure that 2018 will see no diminution in his quest for clarity in the case, despite Mr. Trump's year-end declaration that he can do whatever he wants with "his" Justice Department. He also says, likely on the advice of his private lawyers, that he has no intention of firing Mr. Mueller.

All this chatter goes on in the context of next November's midterm congressional elections, in which the current Republican majorities in the Senate particularly and in the House may be in jeopardy.

The president, whose support of GOP gubernatorial nominees in Virginia and Alabama failed to avert defeat, has vowed to put his campaign talents to work through the new year to hold on to those congressional majorities. Whether his bold though often truth-challenged speeches will continue to mesmerize the faithful is the question.

The same midterm elections are being targeted by Democratic campaign organizers and planners in many Republican-held districts, buoyed by the Virginia and Alabama elections, and especially the latter. There, Mr. Trump came out loudly but to no avail in defense of Judge Roy Moore, the accused serial sexual harasser of young girls.

Mr. Trump's own history of sexual harassment, aired during the presidential campaign, was featured in last year's "#MeToo" movement of outspoken victims, dubbed by Time magazine its "Persons of the Year." The Democrats are counting on the phenomenon to energize their efforts in key GOP-held districts.

To a major degree, the Democratic Party was thrown into a state of despair over last year's Trump surprise. It now is obviously depending on its own perceptions of Mr. Trump's personal behavioral manners, and his thrashings of the Obama administration, to turn the 2018 midterms into a referendum on the impulsive and erratic president.

Just as important, however, the Democrats need to sharpen their own agenda to appeal to middle-class voters rather than relying on opposition to Mr. Trump to recover from the defeat at his hands in 2016.

Many Democratic voices, such as former Vermont governor, presidential candidate and national party chairman Howard Dean, are calling for new faces to emerge who will appeal to the younger generation. Dean, 69, said the other day on MSNBC that older party leaders should "get the hell out of the way" and let someone younger run the country. The references are obviously to 2016 contender Sen. Bernie Sanders, 76, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 75, who has indicated he's not inclined to run but hasn't closed the door either.

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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