An ancient political adage holds that winning elections is about addition, not subtraction -- that parties succeed by building the broadest coalitions they can. Donald Trump, who became president by defying the rules, tried to win Tuesday’s congressional elections a different way: through division. It didn’t work.
Trumpism finally met some limits, and the country is better for it. Not healed, not repaired - but better.
Democrats didn’t quite get the “blue wave” they hoped for. They lost at least two seats in the Senate, which will remain solidly under Republican control. But they achieved their primary target: They regained control of the House of Representatives, ending the GOP’s four-year hold on both houses of Congress. Now they can block whatever remains of Trump’s legislative agenda. More important, they can open serious investigations into the president’s conduct. That will make the next two years a very different experience than the White House has enjoyed with a compliant Republican Congress.
But the voters’ larger message was also important: Even without the wave, this was a rebuke of a heedless, headstrong president. In exit polls, 55 percent of voters said they disapprove of the way Trump is doing his job. Two-thirds said the president was a factor in their vote.
Trump has himself to blame on that count, although he’s not known for that kind of introspection. He made this election a referendum on himself.
“In a certain way, I am on the ballot,” he said last week.
“A vote for David is a vote for me,” he said in Iowa, where David Young was running for the House. Young lost.
Trump still doesn’t seem to understand that he won the presidential election with a minority of the popular vote, and that the House of Representatives isn’t decided by the quirks of the electoral college.
He didn’t care that even as he cemented the support of his fervent nationalist-conservative base, independent voters - “soft Trump” voters in 2016 - were drifting away.
Instead of broadening his appeal, he made it narrower. Instead of building a broader coalition - adding - he resorted to relentless, deliberate division.
Instead of focusing his campaign on a surging economy, he whipped up fear over a distant caravan of refugees, questioned the intelligence of African American politicians, and tossed out absurd charges that Democrats wanted to import Venezuelan socialism to the United States.
The result was a backlash among independents, suburban women and college-educated Republicans. Many of those voters supported him in 2016 mostly because they disliked Hillary Clinton. Clinton wasn’t on the ballot this time.
As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report noted, Trump’s popularity falls when he makes himself the center of attention; his ratings rise when he gets out of the way. That’s a lesson the president can’t seem to learn. He couldn’t resist making himself the focus of the midterm campaign, even though some GOP strategists warned against it.
It seems unlikely that the president will take a lesson from what ought to be a chastening experience. Has he ever been chastened by anything?
Already, on Tuesday evening, his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, declared the election “a huge victory for the president,” claiming the GOP’s gains in the Senate outweigh the loss of the House. To anyone with a passing knowledge of Congress, the claim is risible.
A normal president might consider a dose of bipartisanship, an attempt to negotiate with the Democratic leadership of the House. Ronald Reagan did that when he had a bad midterm election. So did Bill Clinton.
But even if this president wanted to proclaim a New Trump, and work across the aisle, he can’t. He’s poisoned the wells from which bipartisanship is drawn.
Democrats don’t want to deal with him. They don’t trust him to keep his word. And their voters consider him the devil. It will profit Democratic leaders nothing to sell their souls for, say, an infrastructure bill.
Meanwhile, the president has radicalized - or rather, Trumpified - his own party. Most of the last GOP moderates are gone, replaced either by Democrats or by more conservative Republicans. Next year’s Senate will be even less interested in compromise than the current version.
That’s not a promising foundation for deal making or governing; it’s a guarantee of gridlock. All that’s missing is a declaration from Nancy Pelosi that her primary goal is ensuring Trump is a one-term president.
In his brief political career, Trump has only one playbook. It enabled him to win the presidency in 2016, when almost nobody expected. It convinced him that he is a better political strategist than any of his advisors. The loss of the House is unlikely to inspire him to abandon the polarization, the division, the ugliness and incivility he employed on his path to power.
But everyone else may have learned a hopeful lesson on Tuesday: Division doesn’t always work. Trump isn’t unbeatable. The 2020 presidential campaign begins today.
Doyle McManus is a contributing writer to Los Angeles Times Opinion.