Following the much-anticipated midterm elections on Tuesday, the US government will be split between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. At the end of the evening, it was clear that the House of Representatives will be narrowly controlled by the Democrats. However, the Senate will remain under the control of the Republicans. In Washington parlance, this will lead to political gridlock. But it will also lead to two critical outcomes that will impact the rest of the world.
Losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats is not a sign of political weakness for President Donald Trump. He is still probably in a good position to win re-election in 2020. After all, his party, the Republicans, just won more seats in the Senate. It was entirely expected that the Republicans would lose seats in the House. Historically, the president’s party almost always loses seats during these midterm elections. As it is, it seems that the Republicans did not lose that many seats and the margin of the Democratic majority will likely be fairly small when all of the votes are tallied.
With a slightly increased majority in the Senate, Trump should now have an easy time appointing whoever he wants to direct his foreign policy. The Senate must confirm any appointment of top-level government officials, but his party’s gains there mean this won’t be a problem for him. If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Secretary of Defense James Mattis were to retire, he could choose anyone he wants to replace them and face no real opposition.
This is particularly important for his choice of emissaries around the globe. For example, the US does not currently have an ambassador to Saudi Arabia or several other countries. In part, that is because Trump had difficulty getting some of his other ambassador choices confirmed. For instance, Richard Grenell, who is serving in Germany, was not confirmed for more than six months as Democrats had obstructed his nomination. Now Trump will likely be able to name ambassadors to posts more easily and more quickly, and he can likewise fill vacant positions in the State Department with people of his own choosing.
Overall, increasing Republican control over the Senate helps Trump control American foreign policy. If the Republicans had lost the Senate, Trump’s foreign policy would have been beholden to Democrats, who could hold up or deny any personnel appointments. They might have forced him to choose an ambassador who was not ideal or held up the nomination of a foreign policy official until the administration made concessions to Democrat foreign policy ideas. Now Trump is free to pursue his own policies for at least the next two years.
Losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats is not a sign of political weakness for President Donald Trump
Ellen R. Wald
The other major development that will impact the world will be that the US government will likely be distracted, even more than it has been, for at least two years. With Democrats controlling the House, they will almost surely begin investigating every detail of Trump’s actions and life. They will also probably investigate the business of his family and the activities of many people in his administration. Committees in the House have significant investigatory powers, which mean they can distract the government and the people of the US.
The Democrats in the House will look for any scandal they can find to hurt Trump politically, but it is notable that the House cannot actually do anything about any scandal it finds. The House cannot prosecute anyone: That job belongs to prosecutors who work under the president. The House can vote to impeach the president and other government officials, but that would end in a stalemate because the Republican Senate would not convict. In other words, the Democrats in the House can only create distractions, even if they find true scandals.
All of that would be very distracting for the US and for the government in particular. In the late 1990s, the Republicans controlled the House and they spent significant time investigating the Democrat President Bill Clinton. Despite major foreign policy concerns involving Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq and Al-Qaeda, the government was distracted by domestic political scandals. In fact, some critics claimed that Clinton attacked Al-Qaeda with cruise missiles in August 1998 to distract the nation from his scandals.
The most important question is whether the Congressional focus on scandals and investigations will detract from the most pressing global issues the president is involved in — such as North Korea, trade negotiations with China, the Iran sanctions, the war in Afghanistan, and the future of NATO. He will have the comfort of his own personnel choices around him, but will he have the time and attention to give to issues of foreign policy? This is the question the world should consider today.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy