China Radio International asked me to analyze the November 6 U.S. midterm elections. Instead of staying up all night watching the results in Washington, as I used to do during my 35 years of covering politics, I spent a day of my midterm (exam) week at Tsinghua University monitoring the returns, taking advantage of the 13-hour time difference to avoid sleep deprivation.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of my CRI Q&A:
Q: What’s your reaction to the election result?
A: It was exactly the result I expected. Donald Trump’s decision to divide the country along class and racial lines helped Republicans make gains in the Senate but it doomed them in the House. And I think Trump made a rational political decision: sacrifice the House to keep the Senate, where his nominees for executive office and the courts must be confirmed. This split verdict of the voters strengthens Trump as far as nominations are concerned, but it will make it hard for him to pass any legislation unless it is truly bipartisan. It also will subject him to aggressive oversight by the new Democratic committee chairmen in the newly Democratic House.
Q: To what extent do you think this is going to reshape the political landscape of America?
A: It confirms that 2016 was not a fluke and that Trump has realigned American politics. On the one hand, some suburban voters are switching to the Democratic Party, and women and younger voters are becoming more and more Democratic. But Trump has consolidated the realignment of white working-class voters and has managed to maintain the support of many educated white men in the suburbs. I think it means at least two more years of deeply divided politics and a focus by both parties on a few states that will determine the 2020 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona and probably Florida.
Q: Donald Trump said two days before the elections that he planned to focus on the Senate. He declared the election results a “tremendous success” for Republicans. In what ways could this be a victory for Donald Trump?
A: Well, it’s a victory because he kept control of the Senate, and even strengthened the Republican majority. He is directly responsible for that with his highly charged rhetoric and his aggressive campaigning. Five new senators owe Trump their jobs. It means that Trump will have virtual carte blanche on nominations for administration positions and federal judgeships for the next two years.
Q: Do you think Donald Trump should be given the credit for Republicans keeping the Senate red?
A: Yes, he deserves credit. And so does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump figured out a way to motivate his base. Democrats were enthusiastic about going to the polls to vote against Republicans. They figured out a way, with the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, to charge up Republican base voters. Trump understands the Trump voters better than the American media does.
Q: With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, is Washington going to see even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock?
A: Because the Democrats control the House, there will either be bipartisanship or gridlock. Judging by Trump’s track record, I would bet on gridlock. Unless Trump completely changes his persona and suddenly becomes a statesman, Washington will devolve into gridlock and recriminations. The House will investigate Trump. The Senate will support Trump. The most likely compromises will come when Congress debates spending bills, because they have to figure out a way to agree to pay for government operations.
Q: The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump. Why is that? Is that what usually happens in the U.S.?
A: Midterms are rarely a referendum on the president. The 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obamacare and government spending to counteract the Great Recession. The 2006 midterms were not a referendum on George W. Bush but a rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a saying in Washington that in Congress, all politics is local. In Donald Trump’s Washington, all politics is all Trump, all the time.
It was a referendum on Trump because he made it a referendum on himself. He could have made it a referendum on a strong economy, but he decided that dividing voters over issues such as immigration and judges would help Republicans keep the Senate. He was right about that, although Democratic Senate candidates got millions more votes than Republican candidates, and House Democratic candidates received a bigger majority of the two-party vote than either party has received since 2008. So the public spoke: Trump and Republicans are unpopular, but the American system, which gives each state two senators, benefits the smaller, more conservative states where Trump is popular.
Q: A survey released on the eve of the election shows that a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics. What does it tell about the political environment in today’s American society?
A: It is toxic. I stayed off Twitter for much of the past week because there were too many angry people spending their time insulting each other. Social discourse in America is making people angry, depressed and divided. I hope that changes, but I’m not sure where the change will start.
Q: Why are we seeing more far-right activists using violence to express their political views, from the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures to the shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people?
A: Far-right activists feel empowered and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and his successes. Trump is not responsible for crazed people who commit violent acts, but he does bear some responsibility for the lack of civility in public discourse and a failure to repudiate racial and religious hatred.
Q: Will the election result in any way influence the Trump administration’s trade policies?
A: I am an eternal optimist, and I think there’s a chance that Trump will try to cool down the rhetoric and try to find a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute with China. Election Day polling of voters found that only 25 percent of them believe that Trump’s trade policies are good for the American economy.
But it is also possible that, having declared victory, he will feel emboldened to continue to challenge traditional allies such as the EU and NATO, and get tough with China and even Russia, as we saw recently when he pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty.
Yang Rui: How do these midterm elections damage what President Obama wants to do in the remaining two years?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think right now we’re in for a period of tension, we’re in for a period of confrontation between Congress and the President. The Republicans in Congress think President Obama is weak and they’re going to push very hard for their agenda. They’re going to see how far they can push him. I think the White House will want to reach out a bit more, but I think it’s going to be much harder for the White House to reach out because Republicans think he is weak.
Yang Rui: I believe you must have followed the midterm elections very closely. Anything that surprised you despite the results themselves that are not so surprising?
Rick Dunham: No, I actually was not surprised at the Republicans’ sweep of the Senate. Historically, you look back at almost every big wave election year and you have one party winning almost all the close elections, and Republicans only lost one of them –in New Hampshire. What I was surprised at in this election was the incompetent campaign run by the Democratic National Committee and the White House. There were never on the offensive and they let the Republicans attack President Obama. They almost had no positive message during the campaign. That really surprised me. I haven’t seen a campaign this bad since 1980.
Yang Rui: Exactly 20 years ago, President Clinton was facing the majority that Republicans enjoyed in the two chambers of the Congress. What happened was the shutdown of the federal government and the standoff between Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, and the president himself. Now, last year we saw the partial shut down of the federal government, do you think we are likely to see it another repeat of the shutdown?
Rick Dunham: I think it’s highly likely. We saw a short shutdown last year but I think the Republicans are going to push the president to the brink and see if he capitulates. I think it’s almost certain that we’re going to see a shutdown. President Obama is going to have to veto Republican legislation and then force a compromise.
Yang Rui: What are the major obstacles or issues that may be a test of the bipartisan wrangling?
Rick Dunham: I think that number one will be government spending. The Republicans will try to cut the amount of government spending and particularly programs the president likes. The second big one is health care — the president’s health reform law of 2010. House Republicans voted 40 times already to repeal it. I think that the Senate Republicans will try now to push the president and force him to veto.
Yang Rui: Well that’s very bad. Now I start thinking about what I read from Francis Fukuyama, the guy who is the author of The End of History. Now, ironically he wrote in another book, it’s about political decay in U.S. domestic politics, meaning the architect of American constitution was able to restrict powers but they have not been able to create powers, and that has delivered a lot of friction and frustrations between the two parties. And the efficiency of the government, all at different levels, has been seriously compromised.
Rick Dunham: Well, I agree with the conclusion, but not necessarily his reasoning to get to the conclusion. I think that we see this kind of gridlock in the United States and dysfunctional democracy largely for two reasons. One is the amount out of money in politics that is making it difficult to pass anything. And the second issue is that you have partisan media in the United States. You have a fracture of the traditional media and you have people who get information that’s based on their own preconceived notions. So the country is deeply divided now and it’s very hard to have commonality because you have people on one side going to Fox News and on the other side going to CNN or National Public Radio, and you don’t really have a common area where they can reach agreement.
Yang Rui: And there are very serious disagreements between couples under the same roof.
Rick Dunham: Huge gender gap. Men overwhelmingly voted for Republican this election, women voted just about evenly, Democrat and Republican.
Yang Rui: Then there is the situation with the low turnout.
Rick Dunham: There has been a problem with turnout in America starting in 1990s. There was a spike up when Barack Obama ran in 2008. Turnout was the highest in 20 years but it has gone back down to its pre-2008 levels, and the biggest drop of was minority voters, black Americans and Hispanic voters, both of them heavily Democratic.
Black voters voted nine to one for Democrats but the turnout was far down from where it was, which cost the Democrats the governorship of Florida, it cost them the Senate seat in North Carolina. Those very narrow losses in those states were result of very low minority turnout.
Yang Rui: What do you think of the impact of the midterm upheavals on the presidential election two years from now?
Rick Dunham: Well, I think it’s a mixed blessing for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Now there’s no guarantee that she will be the nominee but if she is, the good news for her is that now people are going to be looking at the Republicans, and probably if there’s a backlash in two years it could be against the Republican Congress as opposed to focusing all about President Obama.
The bad news for Democrats is that this election proves that the Democratic electoral majority that elected Barak Obama twice is not strong and is not permanent. The Democrats have to go back and convince minority voters to turn out and they have to go back and convince more women to vote Democratic.
Yang Rui: Thank you very much for joining us.
Here’s a link to the video of the full interview: http://english.cntv.cn/2014/11/06/VIDE1415219400635230.shtml
Thanks to Jade Ladal for her work on the transcript.
Just a few things have changed in my life this year.
New job. New city. New country. New life.
Teaching journalism in China. It’s almost as much of a challenge as practicing journalism in America.
Here are some of the things that are “in” in my new life at Tsinghua University — and some of the old, familiar things I’ve left behind.
OUT: Texas on the Potomac
IN: Yankee on Tiananmen Square
OUT: Hikes on the National Mall
IN: Hikes on the Great Wall
OUT: Bike helmets
IN: Anti-pollution masks
OUT: Turn signals
IN: Chaos on the road
OUT: The second most congested commute in America
IN: The second most congested commute in the world
OUT: Considering something three days old as new
IN: Considering something three centuries old as new
OUT: Finnish saunas
IN: Chinese massages
OUT: American Chinese food
IN: Real Chinese food
OUT: DC Metro
IN: A subway system with trains every two minutes, polite employees and escalators that actually work
OUT: Dysfunctional democracy
OUT: Taking your shoes off at airports
IN: VPNs to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress
OUT: Rush Limbaugh’s rants against Barack Obama
IN: Chinese media rants against Japanese Prime Minister Abe
OUT: The New York Times
IN: People’s Daily
OUT: The Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial
IN: The terracotta warriors of Xi’an
OUT: Delicious Chesapeake crab cakes
IN: Delicious Chinese dumplings
OUT: Lobster rolls from food trucks
IN: Stinky tofu from street vendors
IN: Chicken feet, fish lips and duck brains
OUT: The Washington Redskins
IN: Mao’s little red book
OUT: Obscenely expensive Internet service
IN: Unreliable Internet, spotty WiFi and the Great Firewall of China
IN: Truly socialized medicine
OUT: Soccer moms
IN: Ping pong dads
OUT: 24/7 deadlines
IN: Monthlong breaks between semesters (We call them “district work periods”)
OUT: Suits and ties
IN: Casual Friday every day