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The media ignored the policy stakes in 2016 — don’t make the same mistake again in the midterms

Medicaid caps, SNAP cuts, new tax cuts, and more are on the ballot.

President Trump Attends Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony For Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The latest round of political drama in Washington started with President Trump tweeting a “demand” for a new Justice Department investigation of his political opponents while slamming former CIA Director John Brennan as “largely responsible for the destruction of American’s faith in the Intelligence Community.”

He called FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to the White House for a meeting, while over the weekend, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani did a round of interviews asserting that special counsel Robert Mueller either should or would wrap up his investigation shortly. The whole affair has unleashed new rounds of speculation and reporting about the internal dynamics of the Trump White House and legal team, with people wondering who might be fired and when.

Politics in the Trump era is a series of fascinating human dramas, featuring a larger-than-life celebrity and veteran television personality in the starring role and replete with more plot twists, backstabbing, striking revelations, and strange reversals than any prestige cable series.

While political junkies have always enjoyed the personality stories and human narratives that emerge from political combat, fundamentally the reason that politics is interesting and important is that it drives policy outcomes, and policy influences the lives of millions of people. Even the DOJ drama is, fundamentally, less about Trump personally than about whether the federal legal and regulatory apparatus as a whole will be able to function.

The policy stakes in the 2016 elections were high — because the stakes are high in all elections — and yet television news coverage of the election utterly failed to convey the stakes, with more attention paid to the Clinton email issue than to all policy issues combined.

Trump as an actual president has received more critical scrutiny than he did as a long-shot candidate, but even so, the coverage thus far of the 2018 midterms has focused very heavily on Trump drama rather than the concrete stakes. But if the GOP holds its majorities — not currently considered the most likely scenario, but one for which the odds are decent — there are a range of policies very likely to move forward that will have enormous consequences for the everyday life of millions of people.

Republicans have an unfinished policy agenda

The clearest, but most unfortunately neglected, thing on the ballot in 2018 is the Republican Party’s mainstream policy agenda. The collapse of Affordable Care Act repeal efforts, passage of a large tax cut package, and surprise victory of Doug Jones in an Alabama special election largely brought the large-scale policymaking of the 115th Congress to an end. But a new day will dawn with the 116th Congress, and if that Congress features a continued House GOP majority and an expanded Senate GOP majority, then things will change.

  • The return of Medicaid cuts: The centerpiece of various GOP Obamacare repeal plans was the idea of reversing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, then going beyond expansion repeal to shrink the program over the long term. Republicans dropped this idea after the bills couldn’t pass, but if John McCain is replaced by another Republican and the GOP manages to knock off one or two red-state Democratic senators, there is every reason to believe the idea will return.
  • Big cuts in food stamps: House Republicans’ plan for big cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program collapsed last week, largely due to an unrelated disagreement about immigration policy. But everyone knows the SNAP plan isn’t going to pass the Senate, where Democrats can and will filibuster anything along these lines. If Republicans hold their congressional majorities, they can (and likely will) write budget reconciliation instructions to facilitate cuts to SNAP and other anti-poverty programs under the guise of “welfare reform.”
  • More tax cuts: The extent of tax cutting in last year’s tax reform package was limited by reconciliation instructions that allowed for “only” $1.5 trillion in deficit increases over 10 years. The main proponent of that cap was Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who will be gone and, in a good year for Republicans, replaced by a different, more conservative Republican. Increased borrowing authority paired with cuts to Medicaid and SNAP to create more budgetary headroom will mean more room for tax cuts.
  • The return of Dodd-Frank repeal: Republicans got 17 Democratic Senate votes for a bank deregulation package earlier this year, but it was a fairly modest one. The GOP has not, however, given up on its aspirations for a more far-reaching version of Dodd-Frank repeal. As the scale of Democratic defections on the limited bill shows, this isn’t an issue where Democrats can necessarily be counted on to put forth strident opposition. If Republicans make gains in 2018 — and particularly if Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), both a vulnerable member and a strident opponent of Wall Street, loses — they will likely come back for more bites at this apple.

But beyond legislation, the midterm results will almost certainly have a major impact on the shape of the executive branch itself.

Accountability restored or Trump unchained

It’s likely that previous presidents have desired to politicize the Justice Department’s investigative priorities or even on some level tried to make it happen.

But certainly no president has been as open as Trump in his stated desire to put the full weight of federal law enforcement at his beck and call. So far, it mostly hasn’t worked, a tribute to institutional inertia and the integrity of the men and women working at the relevant agencies.

Yet fundamentally, Trump has already tested these waters and proven that he won’t face blowback from his own congressional party for attempting to misuse his powers in blatant ways. If Congress returns to town with the GOP in a strengthened position, the conclusion that the voters fundamentally didn’t care about this will ring out, and norms and standards of conduct will inevitably erode.

Conversely, however, if Democrats secure a majority in the Senate, then the threat to fire Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein or whomever else if they don’t scramble to abide by the terms of various presidential tweets will become empty.

Getting any officials confirmed by a Democratic-held Senate will be an uphill climb, and confirmation of officials who are tapped specifically in order to help Trump subvert the rule of law will be obviously impossible.

A Democratic House majority will have less — but still considerable — influence. Oversight powers that Republican majorities have abandoned will be revived, whistleblowers will have someplace to take their concerns, and presidential efforts to halt ongoing investigations will be inherently limited by Congress’s independent investigative powers. But while Democratic congressional majorities would likely lead to a lot of subpoenas and legal wrangling, there’s also a fair chance they could be legislatively productive.

Trump and Democrats might agree on some stuff

On a practical level, Trump has governed as a much more orthodox conservative Republican than he portrayed himself as on the campaign trail.

Nonetheless, periods of divided government in the United States generally produce more legislation than people realize. Even in the highly polarized climate of Barack Obama’s second term, Congress enacted a comprehensive overhaul of federal K-12 education policy, and Trump’s lack of deep personal or institutional ties to the Republican Party make it relatively likely that he will at least try for some compromises. Congressional Democrats have been trying for more than a year now, for example, to get Trump interested in their plans for a huge boost in infrastructure spending — something Trump said he favored as a candidate, backed away from as president, but still seems to like talking about.

Trump has also at times voiced support for raising the minimum wage, something congressional Republicans have kept off the congressional agenda but that past Republican presidents faced with Democratic congressional majorities — including George W. Bush — have found themselves agreeing to.

Fundamentally, this is the least predictable area because Trump is an exceptionally undisciplined and inconsistent figure who’s taken both sides on a great number of issues. It’s conceivable that negotiations between a Trump White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi would end up being unproductive in a way with no precedent in American history. But it’s also at least possible that, à la Richard Nixon, he’d be willing to sign a range of moderately progressive domestic policy bills in an effort to safeguard his flank against investigations and obtain a freer hand on the topics that interest him.

The stakes are high because they are always high

It’s something of a cliché to write about how high the stakes are in an upcoming election. The truth, however, is that this has become a cliché because the stakes are always genuinely quite high, and that’s especially true in an era of polarized parties.

Republicans’ policy agenda has largely stalled out as of 2018, but it’s not something the party’s leaders or donors have abandoned. If they do well in the midterms, they will pursue it with a renewed vigor, and they will likely have a good measure of success in doing so. By the same token, Trump’s semi-stalled efforts to turn federal law enforcement into an agent of his personal will and interest will likely be checked if Democrats secure Congress but accelerate if they do not.

Trump and a Republican Senate would continue to reshape the federal judiciary in a sharply conservative direction if they can, while Trump and a Democratic-controlled Congress might make good on some of the gestures toward “populist” economics that Trump offered on the campaign trail.

The 2016 campaign was covered largely as a farce, a human interest story, a sociological phenomenon, or a series of dueling scandals. It was all those things, as are, in their way, all elections. But all elections — and 2018 is no exception — are also crucial turning points in the story of American governance, with huge implications for the everyday lives of ordinary people, and we should never lose sight of that.

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