We’re now three days from the 2018 election — an election in which Republicans appear likely to lose the House. The funny thing is that President Trump seems at peace with that. His late strategy seems to be all about motivating the base for key red-state Senate races. He is focused on that even though that rhetoric seems less helpful — and possibly even harmful — in the more endangered chamber, the House.
“It could happen,” Trump said Friday about losing the House. “And you know what you do? My whole life, you know what I say? ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll just figure it out.’ Does that make sense? I’ll figure it out.”
An election analyst might say he is conceding the House.
A conspiracy theorist might say he sees benefit — personally, at least — in losing the House.
There are very obvious downsides to Republicans' losing the House for Trump. Chief among them is that Democrats could leverage their newfound subpoena power to investigate his administration. They could possibly even obtain those tax returns that Trump clearly does not want us to see and expose what the New York Times has said are fraudulent tax schemes.
He would also be losing the ability to pass legislation without Democratic votes, a setup that gave him a signature tax-cut bill and at least a shot at other victories — a chance that could vanish the moment Democrats control the agenda in half of Congress.
But if you are looking at this purely from the vantage point of Trump’s self-interest — particularly as it relates to winning reelection in 2020 — there is a compelling case to be made that a Democratic House might be a good thing for the president.
The first reason is that voters seem to like divided government. Of the last six presidents to win reelection since World War II, only one had complete control of Congress — George W. Bush in 2004. In 1996, 1988, 1980, 1972, 1968 and 1956, one party controlled all of Congress, but voters picked the other party for the White House.
The second is that it gives Trump a boogeyman — or, more apt, a boogeywoman. It’s one thing to campaign against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) by warning that she could become speaker; it’s another to do so if she is speaker. If Democrats win the House, Trump will have a ready-made foil for his 2020 reelection campaign, even if his Democratic opponent is not such a lightning rod.
Trump could also blame the Democratic House for his continued failures to live up to his many, many promises. (He has already done this to some degree, even though Democrats have no control over any branch of government.) Trump has fulfilled some promises, but key ones and far-fetched ones such as the border wall (not to mention making Mexico pay for it) remain improbable even if Republicans keep control of the House and Senate. If you are going to have gridlock, you might as well have someone on which to blame it who is not in your own party.
And, finally, even that subpoena power could pose some tough choices for Democrats. There will be pressure from the party’s base to go after Trump hard and even impeach him, but we’ve seen how that can lead to overreach — most notably, when Republicans impeached Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. And Democratic leaders have already telegraphed a wariness about that. What happens when they actually have power and the base wants them to go further than they think is prudent? That doesn’t mean they will go too far, but there’s a clear tension.
This is all speculative, yes. It is just as probable that Trump is campaigning so much for Senate candidates because he and the people around him recognize he is much better as a base motivator than a swing-voter winner. You get more bang for your buck as president campaigning in one of 35 Senate races than in one of 435 House races.
But it is also true that Trump’s closing message is of much more questionable utility when it comes to saving the House, and he does not seem to care much about that, even though it would ostensibly be a major setback for his agenda. This is also a president who has generally looked out for himself rather than his recently adopted political party, and it is not unreasonable to ask whether he truly cares about the fate of that party — especially if its setback could be his own personal gain.
And even if it is not necessarily something he’s aiming for, it’s possible it could help him.