The Worrying Meaning of the 2018 Off-Year Election


            The 2018 election is almost over with just one district from North Carolina to be decided, although, to my mind, the Republican won. The Democrats gained 40 seats.


            The 40 seat gain puts the 2018 gains as the 11th highest out of the 25 off-year elections since women won the right to vote. [There is little contemporary relevance to elections where women were not allowed to vote and, in effect, Black people were not allowed to vote either.] So, 2018 was an average year.


            The average swing for all off-year elections is about 32, for both Democrats and Republicans.


            So, the Democratic gain of 40 House seats is about normal for an off-year election. The 2018 election was normal in another way. In all but four elections, the party of the president loses seats in off-year House elections. Of the four elections where the party of the president gained seats in the House, two were during the Great Depression (1934 and 1938), and two were the back to back terms of Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002.


            There is one way in which 2018 was not normal at all. In all but three elections, the party that gains seats in the House also gains seats in the Senate. In only three elections did this not hold: 1962, 1970 and 2018. The only one of these elections in which one of the branches changed party control was in 2018. So, 2018 was unique.


            In 1962, the election came in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and while Kennedy involved the United States deeper and deeper in Vietnam. The president's hand in foreign policy was strengthened with the addition of four Democratic Senators in spite of losing one House seat.


            In 1970, the United States had expanded the war into Cambodia, and four students were shot dead by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State in Ohio. Nixon added one Republican Senate seat, a liberal Republican was replaced by a Conservative (Jim Buckley - NY), and a conservative Democrat ran for re-election as an independent (Harry F. Byrd, Jr. - Va.), thereby strengthening Nixon's hand in foreign policy by three.


            In 2018, President Trump has trashed America's foreign policy, pulling out of international agreements, alienating allies, and cozying up to dictators while praising gangster conduct like the Philippine President Duterte's War on Drugs where people were urged to kill drug dealers and users and where the police routinely kill unarmed addicts. Trump also was an apologist for the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the embassy in Turkey.


            It would be comforting to lay the Republican gains in the Senate at the feet of the Democrats' incompetent opposition to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The non-germane puritanical attack on someone for juvenile behavior in the wake of Bill Clinton's failed impeachment and Donald Trump's election, not to mention Kennedy's, Johnson's and Roosevelt's philandering demonstrates how out of touch the Democratic minority in the Senate can be.


            Nevertheless, the split decision in the Congress with the unique capture of one branch by the opposition could also point, as in 1962 and 1970, to serious trouble in foreign policy-making. It doesn't take someone with a crystal ball or a vast espionage network to know that Trump is pushing special operations to the very edge if not over the line of legality. His blatant disregard for international law in his actions in the Middle East is almost guaranteed to widen and intensify the war in that area of the world. He has abandoned any pretense of being an honest broker in the Middle East Peace Process and has taken, not only Israel's side but the right-wing of Israel's side.


            The 2018 off-year election would indicate that Trump is trying to foment war with Iran as a means of ensuring his re-election. His pulling troops out of Syria and elsewhere is to remove potential retribution targets for "terrorists" after he starts to bombing Iran and other places in the Middle East.


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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf