Has the Democratic giant awakened?
WASHINGTON — Statewide and local elections a year after a presidential election usually garner little attention, but the political climate this year is far from usual. Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey are being seized by the winners as a resurrection, and kissed off by the Republicans a mere blip on the screen of a slumbering electorate.
It’s no wonder, considering the fact that Democrats not only were elected governor in both states but the party took over a host of other state and local offices as well, and possibly wresting the lower state legislative House in Virginia.
In the gubernatorial contest there, moderate Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam beat veteran GOP political operative Ed Gillespie, who ran with the endorsement of President Donald Trump, but notably without Trump making an appearance on the stump.
In recognition of the president’s toxicity in a state won by Hillary Clinton a year ago, Gillespie settled for embracing key elements of the Trump agenda, including tougher anti-immigration and anti-crime laws and defense of Confederate War statues, but not the man.
When Gillespie lost to Northam by nine percentage points, the president characteristically blamed his candidate because “he did not embrace me or what I stand for.” Democrats, however, were quick to cite Gillespie’s attempt to have it both ways with Trump. They argued that it confirmed the president’s negative impact not only in Virginia and New Jersey but also in other states where other Republican candidates appeared to be damaged by mere party association with him.
As for the Democrats, they could claim to see a light at the end of the dark tunnel dug for them in Trump’s Electoral College victory last November. Droves of women, African-Americans and Latinos now turned out at the polls. Many told reporters they were acting on the inspiration of last January’s Women’s March on Washington triggered by Clinton’s loss to Trump, and the president’s words and actions thereafter.
In the intervening time, Trump’s campaign objectives had gained little headway in the Republican-controlled Congress. Republicans failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, and they now face a hard slog to deliver tax reform and reduction.
It turns out that there is stronger sentiment in the country for mending the health care system than for demolishing it, and for proving more tax relief for the middle class than for the already rich.
At the same time, the president’s first nine-plus months in the Oval Office have been tarred by White House staff disarray and firings, and by the cloud of the special counsel’s investigation into alleged collusion with the Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The recent guilty plea by a Trump campaign staff member to charges of lying to the FBI, plus the indictments of two others on money-laundering charges, signal a tightening of the case. Meanwhile, Trump continues to declare there was no collusion and that the whole inquiry is, in his words, “a hoax” built on “fake news.”
Nevertheless, his angry and disaffected voters still see him as a vehicle for change and are sticking with him. And despite the mini-revolt of anti-Trump Republican senators, including Bob Corker of Tennessee and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, the pushback shows little sign of spreading within the party right now.
The Senate Republican establishment, either in style or in substance, largely remains unwilling or unable to reassert any influence on the president to adhere to the norms of the Grand Old Party. And so it seems resolved to make the best of things, with little hope that Trump will change his ways.
Thus, the best that can said of Tuesday’s off-year voting is that the Democrats have finally turned the corner from last November’s electoral nightmare, and that the hysteria that Trump injected into the American body politic may finally be on the wane.
Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.