In a special episode recorded the morning after the midterms, we try to make sense of the results as they come in. How much trouble can a Democratic House cause for Trump's presidency? What will Republicans do with their new strength in the Senate? And when, if ever, will the South turn blue? Plus we ask what impact the Kavanaugh hearings had on the outcome and whether the Democrats have an economic message for 2020. With Helen Thompson and Gary Gerstle – recorded in front of a live audience at Trinity College, Cambridge.
DAVID: Hello – my name is David Runciman and this is Talking Politics.
It is 8:00 a.m. on the 7th of November, and we are in Trinity College Cambridge in front of a live audience who have come to hear us try to make sense of the midterm election results. It's a pretty mixed picture but we're going to do our best. I have with me to try and make sense of all of this, Gary Gerstle, professor of American history, Helen Thompson, professor of international political economy. We're going to try and take a broader as well as a narrow perspective. We've done a few of these where we stay up most of the night and an election happens and then we record early in the morning. And this one feels different.
So no one is in tears, which is normally the case, certainly that was the case for Trump's election and for Brexit. And there isn't that sense of shock that there was after the two UK general elections. In some ways this panned out as predicted in the sense that most people expected that the Democrats would take the House. Most people expected that the Republicans would hold on to the Senate. But the Democrats have probably done better in the House than expected. And the Republicans have almost certainly done better in the Senate than expected. So the results aren’t all in as we speak, but it's looking roughly like a 35 seat pick up in the house for the Democrats and a four or five Senate seat pickup for the Republicans. So Gary, one way to think about this—and I've already heard people watching CNN overnight, the Republican spin on this is, ‘This is just a normal midterm election, particularly for a two-term president.’ So the history of two-term presidents is that they have tended to do pretty badly in their first midterms. That was true of Obama, was true of Clinton, was true of Reagan, was true of Eisenhower, it was true of Woodrow Wilson… You know, there's a pattern here. Is there a case for saying that there is something normalizing about this election for the presidency?
GARY: It feels oddly normal in the Trump era, but that hardly makes it normal.
DAVID: Or the fact that we're not freaking out.
GARY: That hardly makes it normal for American history. I think in some ways it does resemble other midterms—and other ways it does not. I think it's helpful to think about this as a rebuke to Trump. The Democrats had a big win in the house, the turnout, the number of seats they gained, very, very impressive. It's going to change the landscape in Washington. But this is not a defeat any order of 2010 when the Republicans took both houses from Obama or 1994 when the Republicans took both houses from Clinton. So it may not have that level of significance. But as a statement about resistance to Trump and another America being mobilized to make its voice heard, the victory in the House is very important and very substantial.
DAVID: Because in a way, actually, the one it's closest to is Reagan in ’82 and some Republicans are pointing of that. But I agree with you. I actually think it's a pretty remarkable result for the Democrats. One reason is that it's just much harder than it used to be to flip House seats because so many of them have been gerrymandered. So the story that we've heard about American politics over the last 10 plus years is that, actually, in these elections fewer and fewer seats are competitive, fewer and fewer districts are competitive. So to win of 35 under those circumstances, plus with a booming economy—I look at Helen, here—it’s a result, right?
HELEN: I’m not sure. I mean, it is—There's no doubt about it in the sense of the consequences of it because the Democrats’ control in the house is very consequential for what will happen to the Trump presidency, not least because of the chairs of these committees, the House Intelligence Committee flipping from being chaired by a Republican to being chaired by a Democrat is a big deal for what will come next in terms of the whole focus of investigations of the House Intelligence Committee is going to change. And I think though, in terms of the number of seats that the Democrats have… Obviously you're right that it has become more difficult to win House seats because of gerrymandering. But remember this is also the situation that the Democrats expected to be in in 2016, which was to control the House. That was a kind of almost like a minimal expectation of what was supposed to come with a Clinton victory. And that is not where they've got to. I think what is striking is the composition of it. So you got some states, I think Iowa was a good example of this, where the Democrats last I looked could possibly win all of the seats— I'd think it won four out of five already. So they've done well in places where you think, okay, you would not expect such comprehensive Democrat success. But nonetheless, in the 30 range, in a position where we're supposed to be talking about a uniquely malevolent, unpopular president… I'm not so convinced.
DAVID: And we will go on to the Senate in a second because this is the tale of two… not just two electoral results, but almost two versions of American politics. And what we've seen in the Senate is the other America. But just to talk about the House a bit more—that gerrymandering issue. So the other thing that has been going on has been the elections for governorships and so on. So there's also state level politics here, and the Democrats again have done pretty well there. And a big part of the story of the Obama years was the wipeout of Democratic representation at the state level, which gives Republicans control over the electoral mechanism. Wresting it back is a huge part of wresting back American politics, and Gary, is this the start of that? [6:08]
GARY: It could be it could be. A thousand Democratic officeholders got wiped out in the midterm elections of 2010. Under the second term of Obama's presidency, I think something like 26 states were under the control of the Republican party, meaning the governorship and both houses of the legislature. If we include those states where they control two out of three branches, up to 33. That's an extraordinary advantage and that wipeout under Obama has not been sufficiently factored into an understanding of how American politics works because it's so decentralized and so federalized that whoever controls the state apparatus in different states, which is where the elections, every election occurs, makes an enormous amount of difference. And every 10 years redistricting occurs because of a constitutionally mandated change to reflect population and that is always politically inflected. So whoever controls the state legislatures and the governorships in 2020 is going to have a profound influence on the shape of districting for the following 10 years. I don't think the Democrats did as well with the governorships and the state houses as they had hoped to in the last week.
DAVID: And they got there a famous scalp, right? There are some symbolic wins—Scott Walker.
GARY: They've also made progress. If you consider the magnitude of the wipeout in 2010, it's probably too much to think they could have reversed that organizational collapse in one election. If they are thinking of this as a two-step process, progress now, building on that further progress in 2020, then it may be the beginning of something much bigger beyond the House itself.
HELEN: I was going to say, I think that the governorship position is quite mixed because on the one hand, for the reason that Gary says, the Republicans have got quite some way to fall, but they've got all the organizational advantages that come from controlling states. What you see I think is some high-profile victories like the one you've mentioned, David, in Wisconsin, but also a high profile failure for the Democrats in Florida, where clearly the Republican candidate was quite weak and the Democrats haven't been able to win. And it's also quite striking in Massachusetts, you know, the Republican governor there has held on by, effectively by a landslide, in a state that is going to be decisive in this respect that Massachusetts needs to be going back Democrat.
DAVID: Florida is interesting I watched Andrew Gillum’s concession speech. It was a pretty eloquent, noble speech in its way, but he also didn't look too downcast, which is surprising given that he had lost to, not just a week candidate, but a very Trumpy candidate. But he made a point of saying how thrilled he was that Florida's voters had passed the… I think it's a proposition, that will reach re-enfranchise people in Florida who had lost the vote because they had served time in jail. And the figure I saw is that's 1.5 million Floridians, which in itself… I mean even the fact that that happened, never mind that it's now going to unhappen, is such a huge factor. Potentially that is a more significant result than what happened in Florida overnight, which is the Republicans at the state level won. You can imagine that that was the turning point in Florida politics. But then you think, well but then the Republicans might try and undo it. You know there's that kind of back and forth quality to it too. But these things really matter, right?
GARY: They do really matter. And we have to think about enfranchisement and disenfranchisement both going on at the same time. This is tremendously encouraging in the South, 1.5 former felons regaining the right to vote. The South is also an expert in finding ways to disenfranchise voters and with a sympathetic Supreme Court they may well be empowered to do that. Some more… outrageously in Georgia the idea that the man running for governor was also in charge of the state's electoral organization as secretary of state and allowed to continue in that role while he was running to win the election… There have been all kinds of accusations of very substantial irregularities in Georgia. I would also say that Florida is both a defeat and a victory. The Republicans are going to be crowing that they won the governorship in the Senate. And that's a big state for 2020. We have to think of, how are the Democrats, when are the Democrats going to crack the South? Can they crack the South? They lost the South in the 1960s over race and the civil rights movement, and they came tantalizingly close this time in Texas Georgia and Florida. We’re still waiting for one of those states to flip democratic and go blue in a serious way. When that happens that will signify a change in American politics in the configuration of the landscape. You can read it both ways—it’s very encouraging but it still has not happened.
DAVID: You can read everything both ways in this election.[10:56]
HELEN: Virginia has now become a blue state, I would say though. Decisively so. It’s been a long time since the Republicans did well and in a Virginia election.
GARY: Yes, yes. And the question is whether that can be copied elsewhere. Part of why Virginia has turned blue is because the northern part of the state, now the most populous part of the state, is entirely populated by northerners who work in Washington D.C. That may be a model for the broader South as well—fastest growing region and many northerners coming in. But it's been very, very slow to happen. In Tennessee, a state where I lived for 10 years, the results for the Democrats are just awful. The person who won the governorship was so right wing, regarded 10 years ago that she didn't fit in any spectrum of American politics, Marsha Blackburn. The Democrat who lost, Phil Bredesen, had been governor of the state and had been regarded as a centrist Blue Dog Democrat. Karl Dean, a tremendously popular mayor of Nashville, which is very blue, got completely wiped out in the state race for the governorship, got only 40 percent of the vote. So the South for the Democrats remains a challenge. And they've made significant inroads but they still have to pick up a big victory or two there to fundamentally change the calculations of the Republican Party.
DAVID: So let's talk about Texas because it was a big focus of this, and there was a comparison drawn between Texas and Tennessee. So in Texas you have this very charismatic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, running on a pretty left, populist platform. And then in Tennessee you have someone who cleaves more to the center. So they both lose. But O'Rourke did surprisingly well. We haven't got the final figures but the last time I looked he was within three points of Ted Cruz. But I read a really interesting profile—there have been many profiles of him—but I read a really interesting one just before the election that said Republican operatives in the state said ‘He is our worst nightmare, and he is our dream opponent.’ So he's our worst nightmare because he's so good looking. He's a money raising machine. He sucks up attention. He can hoover up people's focus. But he doesn't know how to beat us. That's why he's our dream. He has not tried to persuade a single Republican to vote Democrat. What he has done is the strategy that you see in lots of places—I think in some ways it is the Corbyn strategy in this country—which is to persuade people, particularly young people, who don’t normally vote to vote. Given that was his strategy, he did amazingly well. And yet if I was a Texan Democrat I would think he did about as well as you can do with that strategy. I mean maybe there’s a demographic shift that takes you over those extra three points but he maximized that way of getting the vote out and he still lost. And that would really give me pause.
GARY: Well as a member of the original generation that was going to change the world, the 60s generation… and it did change the world but not quite in the manner that we had expected. So we expected a blue liberal wave of the 60s and 70s to reshape America forever. And I've spent most of my adult life living under conservative administrations in America. So I am skeptical of the argument that just when this generation, when you young people come into power and flex your muscles, everything will be alright because I was part of the original generation that promised that. So I think I'm agreeing with you, David. I think it's not enough… Democrats have been making the argument for a long time that ‘If we just get our people out to vote. We will win.’ And I'm not sure that's enough. They have to find a way of peeling off a portion of the electorate voting Republican. Now there are some good signs about that in this election. The Democrats have made very serious inroads into stalwart Republican suburban districts, but
they have not done enough of that in the South. And I think for them to be successful, or to draw the right lessons from this election, they have to say we don't have to draw 40 percent but we have to draw perhaps 20 percent of that electorate into our coalition if we’re going to win.
HELEN: I was going to say something about Beto O'Rourke. I think what's really interesting about him is how much money raised, it’s just phenomenal the amount. I think it was 35 million dollars in the last quarter alone. There’s scarcely any comparison with that. I think that he's shown that he's done that in terms of the digital platforms that he's used, but he was also very capable in using Ted Cruz, his opponent, as a means of raising that money. And I think you can see that the same thing, the Democrat candidate who lost in North Dakota also raised a phenomenal amount of money and was able to use a Kavanaugh hearings in order for that purpose. So you use, if you like, an opponent—I won't say an enemy—an opponent, and say, ‘Look you have to turn out, you have to give me money in order to defeat this symbol of everything that is wrong.’ But in both cases the Democrat candidate in North Dakota lost quite badly. And as you say, O’Rourke’s got as close as he can get without winning. It hasn't actually paid off. But I think this whole fund raise round the symbol of an opponent has got limitations as a strategy as well. [15:48]
DAVID: Because in a way there are three elections happening here. There is a national election, and the Democrats have won, they usually win. I mean they won in 2016. If you just toss up all the votes across the nation, the Democrats seem to have a majority and they will have won a majority of the votes here. There are district elections, where Democrats seem to be increasingly skilled at mobilizing their support to win key target seats. And then there are the state level elections, particularly in the South, particularly in the states they need to win to win the presidency, and they don’t seem in this one to have cracked building the state-wide coalition. The state ones are closer to a general election but they're not because they are… And I was thinking particularly in Texas, I mean we've talked about it quite a lot on this broadcast, if the big divisions are generational and educational in America as in British politics, and your core vote is young and college educated, that does not get you a majority in many parts of the United States, including in many states, and you need to add to it. And I don’t see that strategy here unless I'm missing it. I mean certainly with someone like O'Rourke you can go a long way with that coalition, but there aren’t enough young people.
GARY: Right, I agree with that. I think there is a strategy to peel off suburban voters and I think the Democrats were very, very successful. When we get the granular data from this…
DAVID: And that will include quite a few non college educated suburban voters.
GARY: Well I'm thinking mostly of college educated, but mainstream Republican voters. And these were crucial to Trump's election in 2016. Trump cannot win with his base alone. He needs base plus, and there have been serious inroads into an important part of his winning coalition in 2016. And also the Democrats have shown signs in the northern states of beginning to rebuild the blue wall that collapsed in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It's only partially rebuilt, still looks a little bit like Hadrian’s wall, but at least it begins to look something like a wall, which, after 2016, there was no wall at all left. So there are some signs… and whether heavy emphasis on the importance of health care and maintaining health care coverage, the Obama plan… there is some sign of the Democrats awakening to a need to bring white working class Democrats on their band wagon, and there are some signs of that. But I think the Democrats have to think harder than they have yet about how they're going to reclaim some of the white Democratic vote in America. I think without that vote they probably cannot win and be the kind of Democratic Party they'd like to be.
HELEN: I think the healthcare issue is really interesting because I think that no other single issue did as much damage to the Democrats in the Obama years as healthcare did. It’s the reason why the midterm disaster happened for the Democrats in 2010 and it goes on all the way… you can still see it playing out in 2014 in those midterm elections. I think for the first time since 2010, healthcare is now a liability for the Republicans and not for the Democrats because Republicans have come in and they don’t have an alternative health care. So people didn't like Obamacare but they sure as hell don’t like having nothing in its place either, and the Republicans have given out very inconsistent messages about preexisting conditions. I think that has been a plus for Democrats. They found a way of talking about healthcare that doesn’t get them into all the difficulties that were there between 2010 and certainly 2014, maybe up to 2016. I think where they still haven't got a strategy is in terms of understanding the impact of themselves as a party on American politics as opposed to just the impact of Trump. So it’s a kind of strategy that involves saying, ‘We need to mobilize all this resistance to Trump’ without thinking that the things that they do themselves. And the ways that they talk about politics might actually be a deterrent to some of the voters that they need to win over.
DAVID: Nancy Pelosi did say just yesterday 100 percent that Democrats are going to take the House and this was a referendum on healthcare, not a referendum on Trump. I think we’ve done quite well actually—for something that was set up as a referendum on Trump, we haven't actually talked about him much yet, which is a sign that this is a mixed picture for him. My guess, partly because he's such a sunny optimistic kind of guy, is that he will be quite cheered by these results. So one way to make that case on his behalf is that, okay, legislative politics is meant to be about passing laws, but that doesn't really happen anymore in the United States because you need all the branches of government to work together and that's really hard. So the focus of politics tends to be on what they can do separately. So what can the House do? And we heard commentators say a lot of this overnight—This is the beginning of the oversight House, of subpoenas demanding the tax records. This is the kind of surveillance scrutiny bit of politics. What can Trump do with the Senate? He can get judges confirmed. Now which would you pick? I would pick the second, and actually not least because the second is a positive achievement. I mean, Gary, we talked about this before, the deal with the devil that many Republicans did is they will keep supporting this guy as long as he keeps reshaping the American judiciary. Whereas demanding tax records, talking about impeachment but probably never doing it… that is a negative form of politics. It doesn't leave you with much to show for it. If I was Trump, I would take that trade. [21:05]
GARY: Well he takes trades so… And so he will make this trade. The win in the Senate looks like a big win for the Republicans. And this will strengthen not just their ability to appoint judges, but very conservative judges. We should not forget in all the drama over Kavanaugh that for Trump, he was a moderate, establishment Republican appointee. He was not the right wing fringe of the judicial world. We may see someone from that right wing fringe as his next nominee. It's hard to imagine that Kavanaugh is a mainstream, establishment, Republican. But he is very close to the Bush family, to the Bush administration. Trump chose him as a compromise because he needed moderate votes in the Senate, and perhaps a couple Republican votes. Now he doesn't need those moderate votes. And part of the outcome of this election is that the Republican Party is increasingly a Trump party, and that we're going to see very strongly in the U.S. Senate. So judicial appointments are a source of concern and a source of power. He will also continue with a very important initiative, which is eviscerating the regulatory state, eviscerating existing agencies which he thinks he can do through executive orders, and much of it in fact he can do. There is a kind of a secret initiative going on between the Koch brothers, these arch-right wing libertarians in American life, and the Trump administration. The Koch brothers support Trump who they don’t really like in return for this vast deregulatory effort. It’s going to also increase Trump's authoritarian tendencies, which is… ‘Why do you need Congress anyway? It’s a broken institution. Me, the great man, let me rule and let me issue orders.’ That is his preferred style of governing. There is a way in which this outcome is going to encourage those tendencies in him and deepen the sense that Congress is a broken institution. And one of my worries about this election going forward is that Congress has been broken for some time as a national legislative body and this polarizing result of the election may continue that and thus deepen the tendencies in American life toward executive orders, authoritarianism, government by some other means then popular sovereignty.
HELEN: I would say, I mean I agree with what Gary is saying about the Senate. I think on the House though, that there is some significance to the control of the committees and it isn't really just a case of Trump's tax returns being subpoenaed. It’s what it stops. Because the House Intelligence Committee has been very useful to Trump. At crucial points in the narrative about Mueller, it has come up with awkward revelations in terms of the Department of Justice and the FBI and the counterintelligence operation that began against Trump in the summer of 2016. There’s several times when revelations that have come up by Mueller been countered by revelations that have come out the House Intelligence Committee, and that dynamic now stops. And I think he’s going to struggle with that.
DAVID: I’ve assumed that Muller has kept quiet… we haven't heard much because he doesn't want to do a Comey, right? He was absolutely terrified of being seen to. But he's now free to start up again, right? I mean that bit of the Trump drama has been put on hold. And people have almost forgotten about it. It has not gone away. It’s just a lot of people learnt the lesson from 2016, which is you don't want to be fingered for the result. But he's now able to pursue his agenda.
HELEN: Absolutely. The Mueller investigation is going to start again. One of the crucial points of defense that Trump has so far had against it is now removed and I think that is consequential.
GARY: And a report from Mueller, I think, will be coming soon. The signs are that he's pretty close to the end of his investigation and he is going to make his final recommendations and indictments and we can expect that to unfold over the next few months. And I agree with Helen that the changed landscape in the House could dramatically change the course of that debate and where it ends up. [25:05]
DAVID: So on your point that there's a danger that the authoritarian side of Trump, which is the major side of Trump, gets enhanced here… the impeachment agenda, if that's what it is, was downplayed on the whole, although O’Rourke ran with it in Texas. And Nancy Pelosi has made fairly clear she doesn't see that as the job of this Congress. But is there a possibility that we are going to get a really serious confrontation, a kind of constitutional crisis style confrontation over the next two years before the next presidential election do you think? Even if it stops short of impeachment.
GARY: There may well be. And we have to remember that the Democratic Party has been reinvigorated by the bringing in of all these new members and constituents, many of whom want to see Trump impeached tomorrow. And there's going to be pressure on the House Republicans to take on impeachment proceedings no matter what Pelosi says. There is a left wing, and also maybe a suburban wing of the Democratic Party that wants to see Trump impeached so there's going to be a mobilization on those grounds. Impeachment begins in the House and then if impeachment articles are voted it goes to the Senate, which acts as the trial and delivers the verdict. With this Republican Senate there is no chance of conviction on impeachment charges. We have to remember that impeachment is fundamentally not a matter of law but it's a political process and it will unfold through various jockeying that goes out between the parties about how they think this is going to enhance their political future. But that is definitely going to be on the agenda when this new Congress takes its seat in January.
DAVID: Is this new Congress, this Democrat controlled House, significantly more left wing than it was yesterday? Because we're not just talking about seats that were won from Republicans, we also have new Democrats who won in primaries and so on. We have younger Democrats, some, not many. It's a slightly more diverse representative assembly. Do you have a sense of whether it has moved significantly to the left?
GARY: I can't say yet that it's moved significantly to the left. There will certainly be… the ranks of the left wing caucus in the House will be enlarged as a result of this. It's not, I would say, it does not seem to be on the order of the Tea Party insurgency of 2010 and the great Democratic Party left wing insurgency, you have to go back to 1934, the Great Depression—a long time ago, almost a hundred years ago. And that's probably the most left wing congress to ever be seated in Washington D.C. and played a very significant role in pushing Roosevelt to the left. This is not that Congress. So there are left wing pressure groups outside that are deeply involved in the political process and those pressures are going to be put. But there’s got to be jockeying within the House, and I think much of that is to be welcomed, just as in Britain Corbyn has ignited a long overdue discussion of what the Labour Party should be. So I think this Democratic blue wave in the House is going to ignite a discussion about what the Democratic Party should be. And that’s an important discussion to have because I think it's not enough for the Democratic Party simply to be the anti-Trump party. If they’re interested in a successful long term future
they have to have a plan and a program and a set of politics that can win even when Trump is out of the picture.
DAVID: [29:43] So we have an audience here. We're going to ask for some questions from them in a moment, but I've just got two more: one about recent history, one about longer term history. So when we did speak last, Gary, it was before the Kavanaugh hearings turned into the great political drama not just of the summer but of many summers. And there was a period towards the end of that drama and after it was over when it felt like everything in the midterms were going to hang on this, and there was a really heightened rhetoric around, that both sides had to dig in because their electoral future depended on it. And after Kavanaugh came out of that and got on the Supreme Court there was a feeling that Trump had won and won big and it had really energized Republican support. That seemed, unless I'm mistaken, it seemed like it dissipated. I mean maybe if these elections happened a month ago we would still be riding that wave. For instance, watching the coverage last night I didn't hear Kavanaugh's name come once. I mean I’m sure it did in various places but I missed it. Did it, in the end, not matter so much?
GARY: I think it did matter because I think before the Kavanaugh hearings, the Republican base… and midterms often turn on the basis of the two parties… the Republican base was rather inert. It had been a bad summer for the Republicans. And a lot of respects it looked like the Kavanaugh hearings were going to go very badly for the Republicans. And then in this remarkable turnaround, it turned out to be a tremendous gift to the Republican Party and enlivened the base in ways that it had not been enlivened before and gave Trump an opening he did not have before that immediately seized. There is probably no one more brilliant in American politics today, or in a long time, at sensing and seizing opportunities. The turnout for this election was remarkable, 114 million, up over 83 million over the last midterms. I mean that's a huge increase. It's not just a blue way, that’s a blue and red wave. And I think the Kavanaugh hearings and the consequences of that in the interior of the country were very consequential. Tragically, the tragic events that occurred in America a couple weeks ago threw Trump off his game. The massacre of Jews in synagogues in Pittsburgh and the pipe bombs sent to numerous Democratic elected officials seriously interrupted the momentum for Trump.
DAVID: And he said that. He said we had great momentum…
GARY: And he is right about that. Each of those events pushed him off the front pages or the web pages for three or four days, cost him critical time. So oddly, what his violent, right wing, fringe supporters did in these instances actually ended up stalling some of their momentum and creating a bit of an opportunity for a Democratic comeback. So yes it mattered. But it was also in some respects contained by the tragic events of October.
DAVID: To be fair to him, he would say that at least in the case of the killer in the synagogue, it was not one of his supporters, but he can say that.
HELEN: I think Kavanaugh really did still matter because I think it's quite hard to explain, as Gary said, how Republican turnout has been as high as it has without Kavanaugh. And I think that the thing Kavanaugh did in the end was to let loose an anger with the Democratic Party, or parts of the Democratic Party, in the way it was seen as behaving during the Kavanaugh hearings in a way that just wasn't there in terms of the Republican response to the Democrats’ response to the Trump presidency and before that. In part that is because a lot of Republican voters care about the Supreme Court, that is in some sense of the pact that they made with Trump, the ones who don't like Trump. They waited a long time to move the Supreme Court in a conservative direction and they were not going to give up their chance of doing it. But it is also, I think, about the Democratic Party and the way in which it behaved during those hearings, its leadership behaved during those hearings, which is extremely off-putting to a great number of people. And I think the Democrats have paid a price for that in this election. [33:37]
DAVID: The last question from me, which is about the economy but also the wider historical arc here—Gary you've just written a long very interesting piece that we’ll tweet a link to about the 30-40 year story in American politics from the New Deal world to the neoliberal world—for want of a better word—that is now coming to an end. But you try and unpick beyond electoral cycles what the deep trends were that shifted America, and not just America, in the neoliberal direction. And in your narrative, the Clinton presidency is absolutely crucial. Now I mentioned earlier that Clinton and Obama, okay they were two term presidents and the story usually is, ‘Yeah they had a setback in the midterms but they bounced back and they won the presidential election and they had another six years and so on.’ But actually, two years in to get that kind of rebuke from the voters does make a big difference. So my question is kind of will it make a difference for Trump? But do you think it made a difference in the past? I mean, for instance, the Clinton story—Is it part of understanding the fundamental shift in American politics that in 1994 he was trounced in the midterm elections by the Republicans?
GARY: Yes and well he was trounced. He was repudiated. I think the distinction between repudiation and rebuke is useful here. I think Trump was rebuked not repudiated. Clinton was repudiated, trounced in 1994, and that profoundly changed his politics.
DAVID: I mean it moved him to the right.
GARY: It moved him far to the right.
DAVID: That's going to be my question about Trump: will it move him to the left?
GARY: Well, he has not suffered the magnitude of defeat that Clinton suffered so I don’t think we can expect that we're going to see that kind of movement. The question is whether we're moving out of the Clinton era, the neoliberal era, which I see as the era not just of the Republicans but also the Democratic Clintonites and also the Blair Labourites. Are we moving out of that era, and if so what would the new one look like? Trump is part of this new era. Bernie Sanders and a reawakened left in the Democratic Party is part of this era. One of the possibilities for Trump—and I think the odds of this are high but it should be put on the table, we should think about it—is what a left turn on his part might look like. And it would look like an infrastructural deal with the Democrats to rebuild America's crumbling infrastructure, provide a lot of jobs. It would look like some kind of deal on immigration, a strengthened border in return for some path toward citizenship. It might also look like strengthening the old age and health security of working class people in America. This was part of what Trump promised. He hasn't done much to eventuate that in his presidency. But if he turned to the left, that would be what it looks like. And we should remember that we are living in uncharted times. The piece I wrote talks about the end of a way of politically ordering America. And we are in a period of transition. We don't know exactly where we're going to end up, but it makes possibilities that seem inconceivable ten years ago more conceivable today. So we should not exclude that possibility.
HELEN: I think these comparisons are pretty interesting because what happened in the Clinton case was on the one hand that you actually get a period of legislation that comes out of the Clinton presidency post 1994 because he starts legislating with Republicans. But actually at the same time you have this intense partisan confrontation about trying to remove Clinton from the presidency via impeachment. If you move on to then what happened with Obama, all the legislation actually comes before the midterm elections in 2010 and then what you have afterwards is scarcely any legislation and what decision making there is done by executive order, which has called some of the difficulties that have now allowed Trump to undo things by executive order since Trump’s election. So if you’re being pessimistic about it, you would say that actually the circumstances in which you can get bipartisan legislation in this situation which we're now in with a precedent from one party and at least one house of Congress being controlled by the other party, are not there any longer. But as you say, Gary, you can see the potential for Trump actually making some common cause with the Democrats in the House. And indeed I think if you go back to the very beginning of the Trump presidency you can see him trying to do that in relation to some of the Democrat leaders in the Senate in regard to infrastructure. The problem that Trump has got is the Republican Party in Congress is not interested in that. He could make that deal but Republicans in the Senate are not going to support it.
DAVID: I was going to say that that's the deep irony here. Unless he so has Trumpified fired the Senate that they will follow him left, which seems to me unlikely, the result of this election is that actually his freedom of maneuver here is reduced. Right—that seems like a good point to ask for maybe three or four questions. [38:38]
QUESTION 1: My question is about the economy. In 2016 we saw broadly a growing economy but a lot of people feeling that the economy is actually getting worse even when they personally were getting better off. What do you think, based on what we've seen overnight and going forward in 2020, as to the impact of the economy compared to the impact of social and cultural issues, and is it still the economy stupid?
HELEN: I think the question of this economy in this election is really complicated because on the one hand there's a pretty positive story that Trump's been able to tell about the economy from the headline data, including a quarter earlier in the year of growth above 4 percent. And generally the quarters of growth have been higher during the presidency than they were in the last few years of the Obama presidency. I'm not saying there's a correlation there, I'm simply saying that that is the case. But it is also the clear if you go on under the headline data that there are still signs of significant weakness—the American housing market has does as badly in the last six months or so as it was in the run up to the housing crisis in 2008. We have to separate out the fact that there have been economic benefits to groups of voters from the higher levels of growth, the lower levels of unemployment over the last few years, with the fact that there still is a lot of economic anxiety out there. And how that then translates into the way in which people vote, when they're also concerned about cultural or social issues or whatever, it is a complicated question. I think it's fair to say that you would have expected the Republicans to have done less well if the headline economic data hadn't been as good as it was. But I'm not sure we can go much further than that.
GARY: I think the economy matters. I agree with Helen the buoyant current state of the American economy no doubt helped Trump in the Republican Party in this election. There's got to be a bill that comes due I think with the tax cut, and when this boom in the American economy ends and a recession begins—so I expect the economy to be very much an issue in 2020. And there are two issues about the economy: one is the business cycle, up and down, and the other is the fundamental reordering of opportunity in nations between those who are part of the globalized economy and those who are not. And that is a major issue in virtually every industrialized country, in Britain as much as America. And Trump is an expression of the resentments that has generated. That will continue to percolate through American politics for some time. But exactly how is hard to predict how. [41:13]
QUESTION 2: So you spoke about how the elections have, well, probably will, indicate a path for the Democrats. Do you think there is a discernible path or do you think there's still stuff to think about that?
DAVID: It’s a really important question. Actually something that we haven't talked about here is leadership on the Democratic side. So Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House again. But the big unanswered question is who, not just who might be the candidate in 2020, but who will become one if not the figurehead for Democratic politics, and not just for the resistance but for an alternative political agenda. And there were some hopes it might be O'Rourke but it's not going to be him. In fact, many of the people that it was hoped might be, lost. I mean this is part of the path. Do you see a path to leadership in the current Democratic Party?
GARY: I don’t see a 2020 candidate emerging right now from this election except for those who are already out there like Elizabeth Warren.
DAVID: And it should be said, Democrats always say, if you'd asked people at this point no one saw Obama, no one saw Clinton, no one saw Jimmy Carter. The way the Democrats do it is they find someone… sometimes.
GARY: I actually agree with that.
DAVID: And sometimes they find Dukakis.
GARY: American politics has a way of throwing up candidates out of nowhere incredibly quickly and all it takes is one election to make someone able to run for the presidency. I think the Democrats are going to need a convincing economic program. So I prefer to think in programmatic terms rather than personality terms. And I think they have to figure out how to manage the cultural question, which the Kavanaugh hearings throw into sharp relief. There is a tremendous amount of energy in the Democratic Party now are this minority mobilization, women mobilization—there's going to be a heavy demand within the Democratic Party for a minority or a black presidential candidate in 2020. You can see the lines of that battle already shaping up. But there's also clearly been a backlash in America against the blackness of Obama and the femaleness of Hillary Clinton. And that remains a very live issue and that's why the Kavanaugh hearings matter, I think, as much as they do because that remains a third rail in
American politics and the Democrats have to give some serious thought to how they're going to manage that and marry their cultural concerns with an economic program. This is not a new matter for the Democratic Party but it's got to be one that they have to engage creatively, and hopefully some of the younger people who are coming into Congress will offer new solutions that will be better than the ones that the Democrats have been trying for the last 20-25 years.
DAVID: Do you see a path, Helen?
HELEN: I think in part but I think that there's a set of obstacles in the way. I think the most encouraging thing from the Democrats’ point of view was that they found something to talk about that wasn't Russia and the resistance when it looked earlier in the year that that was the only sort of message that was coming out, and the fact that they've got back on the front foot in healthcare—I don’t think should be underestimated. I agree with Gary on the other two points. I do think that they have to think harder… and I don't think it is necessarily about culture just in itself, or least in the old culture war issues… they need to think hard about the ways in which that they act and the responses that that induces in people who don’t agree with them. And I’m not convinced that the leadership of the Democratic Party has quite understood that. I think on the economic question I think would be a bit pessimistic for them because I think they’ve got to do more than just think about that in terms of the domestic economy because Trump has changed things quite profoundly in terms of the bigger economic picture because of the confrontation that he’s put into motion with China and the future of the international trading order. And we haven’t really got any kind of response from the Democratic leadership to that beyond a kind of, ‘We are not protectionism.’ I mean in fact the Democratic Party has been pretty protectionist for quite some time but the plates are changing, so to speak, in the international economy and this confrontation with China is a very important part of that and the Democratic leadership has to articulate something about that going forward. [45:30]
DAVID: You said that they got away from talking about Russia. We haven't mentioned it. Are we being sensible or are we being naive not to even consider the possibility that this was not a free and fair election. What happened to the thought that Russian bots decide these things? Did someone work out how to stop them.
GARY: I think there has been a lot of work going on in that respect.
On the other hand if the American electoral system is a hacker's delight. I shudder to think about how I cast my absentee ballot and these clerks in all these little offices across America, I think there are 13,000 different units running the election in America, heavily decentralized and run by people who are well-meaning but not very skilled at what they're doing… and you think if you wanted the system to really hack into and take over, this would be your dream system. So I think that has to be investigated. I think we also have to look carefully at domestic efforts to contain voting and disenfranchise people from actually casting their ballots: long lines, machines, all of this has to be investigated very carefully. We just don't know right now what impact that has. But it has to be reviewed in light of the history of 2016.
DAVID: But at least in some states now Democrats can investigate. I mean that's why it really matters who controls the states.
GARY: They can investigate and Facebook and the other big tech companies have been called to account and are doing much more than they had been to try and control aspects of this process.
QUESTION: So the Democrats didn't do very well in the Senate last night. They've lost in North Dakota, in Indiana, and in Missouri. And these are all three quite rural states but the United States has more rural states now than urban states. Isn’t the biggest gerrymander the structure of the Senate? And considering that, how are Democrats in the future ever going to face a map where they can win and control the judicial appointments process?
DAVID: That is another excellent question. It gets to this point, which last night really brought out which is that the electoral system matters and there is more than one electoral system, plenty more than one electoral system, in American democracy. The more democratic bits favor the Democrats. The less democratic bits—the Senate but also the electoral college—still favor the Republicans. I mean the Electoral College is the historic gerrymander, if one's allowed to say that. If you look to 2020, Gary, do you see the bit of the system that favors the Republicans continuing to win out? Because that's the… in broad demographic terms, the demography also favors the Democrats but they are piling up votes in cities where they don’t need them and there is no means of redistributing those votes because of the Electoral College and the Senate.
GARY: The Senate and the Electoral College have biased elections in America toward rural areas since 1789. It would take a constitutional amendment to change that. Not going to happen in my lifetime and probably not in the lifetime of all you young people sitting here in the audience. And so in that respect, Republicans have a built in advantage, a way of containing the urban multitudes who have been a concern for American let’s call them small “r” republicans since the very beginning of the republic. They are suspicious populations and they have to be watched and regulated and if necessary disenfranchised. So there's a structural reason that gives the Republicans a built in advantage and allows them to control America with a minority, which is what is going on in America today. However there have also been substantial periods when the Democratic Party has found ways successfully to argue against that and to mobilize against that. And they lost that ability for a while—a fellow academic once said to me when she was complaining about the state of politics, she said when Democrats get upset they go to a lecture or to a podcast and listen to the talking heads. When Republicans get upset about the state of politics they run for the local parent teachers association, take it over, and then take over the local government, and then the state government. There's some truth in that. And what did Democrats have ignored is the mechanisms of politics at the very local level in American politics. They are so important. You can’t—no matter how brilliant you are and how committed you are, if all the progressives live in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, the Democrats are not going to win. They have to find a way to build organizations in these states, build these organizations from the bottom up. And I think there is encouraging news from this election that the Democrats understand the imperative of fighting the Republicans toe-to-toe, state by state. And in this respect, the mobilization in the South, even though it didn't work, is very encouraging because the Democrats are beginning to understand that this is where this battle has to be fought and waged. [50:37]
DAVID: Just to say, it is also true that O'Rourke didn't win but people won on his coat tails and that's a big, big shift in Texas too.
HELEN: The fundamental point is America is a federal state. It’s absolutely pointless anybody complaining about the Senate because the Senate is there as a representative of the fact that America is a federal state. It was only 10 years ago in 2008 that the Democrats won a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. In 2012, they were still winning seats in Montana and North Dakota, which are rural states more than Missouri is. So the Democrats are perfectly capable of winning seats in the Senate. They've just got to get back to figuring out ways in which they were competitive, as they were in 2008 and 2012 and have been less so this way round. This is why—the Democrats’ very success in 2012 is why this election in the Senate has been so favorable to the Republicans. And as I say, I don't think they're going to get anywhere by complaining about the nature of the Senate because as Gary says, it is simply not going to change.
DAVID: I am going to ask one last question and it's a sort of question it invites a one word answer, but it's not who's going to win in 2020 because we don't know. But do you think that the Trump presidency is more secure or less secure—given everything we've talked about, Mueller, and Kavanaugh, and the divergent results last night. Is it more secure or less secure than it was 24 hours ago?
GARY: Less secure.
HELEN: Moderately less secure.
DAVID: And I think moderately more secure. Someone's going to be right. I think we can agree that we are going to have more to talk about here. Thank you very much to the Trinity Politics Society for hosting this event. This is not the only thing that's going on in the world of politics at the moment. You could say a much more important election happened recently in Brazil and we are going to be putting out a special extra episode this weekend to try and make sense of that. Is Bolsonaro the Brazilian Trump or is it much, much more serious than that? That will be out on Sunday. We're going to be talking about Italy next week—it's not all about Trump. It's not all about America. But for today, it was. My name is David Runciman and we've been talking politics.