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The Mueller investigation will be the political story of 2019, and other predictions for US politics

Larry Donnelly looks back on 2018 and ahead to 2019 in American politics.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

AS THE YEAR ends, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has been talking apparently extensively to Robert Mueller’s team, was upbraided by a federal judge – “arguably, you sold your country out” – who may actually wind up sending the retired general to prison, notwithstanding the contrary recommendation of the special counsel. Flynn is the latest, yet almost definitely not the last, of the president’s inner circle to feel legal heat.

How close the Mueller investigation is to its denouement is anybody’s guess. The widely-respected registered Republican, lawyer and former FBI director is living up to his boy scout reputation and will see things through to wherever the trail ultimately leads. It is redundant to say it at this stage, but it is remarkable that no one is any the wiser about the contours of the investigation and its inner workings. Mueller’s has been a fully leak-proof operation.

While President Trump continues to deny vehemently that there was an iota of collusion between his campaign and representatives of the Russian government and to insist steadfastly that this is a partisan witch hunt, the Mueller investigation is undeniably an unwanted distraction. What’s more, with Democrats now holding a majority in the House of Representative, there will be further spotlights shone on the New York billionaire’s conduct both before and since he announced his at-the-time long-shot candidacy in 2015.

The dramatic resignation of his defence secretary James Mattis on Thursday, and President Trump’s willingness to shut down the government no matter what the costs and regardless of the sentiments of his fellow Republicans in Congress both showcase his central animating impulse: the United States should retreat from the world stage because it gets screwed by foreigners who the Washington, DC establishment then caters to – and his stubborn refusal to listen to reasonable voices when they don’t echo his gut feelings.

Politically speaking, the electorate offered its first collective verdict on the Trump administration in November’s midterm elections. Both parties have done some yeoman-like spinning on the results.

Democrats did well – but not that well

In short, although Republicans will derive solace from having increased their majority in the Senate by two seats, this was a decidedly bad election for them. Of course, it is a fact that the incumbent president’s party ordinarily takes a beating from the voters in midterms.

President Trump Arrives in Orlando Source: Joe Burbank/PA

That said, the loss of forty seats in the House, fuelled in part by the mobilisation of energised young people and men and women of colour, has given GOP officeholders who will be on the ballot in two years pause for thought. The evidence of erosion of support for the party in suburban America, which has benefited considerably from positive economic trends over the past two years, will similarly engender sleepless nights for conservative politicians.

Democrats, however, have overegged their triumph. It is difficult to defend the claim that this was a “blue wave” or “blue tsunami.” By way of example, two-term Congressman Beto O’Rourke fell short in his upstart campaign against the deeply unpopular Senator Ted Cruz in Texas; Republicans held the governorship and flipped a senate seat in the hugely important state of Florida; and a Republican was elected to succeed the term-limited governor John Kasich in Ohio. Wins in contests like these, and others, when the midterm turnout was the highest in a century speak for themselves.

And something that is studiously ignored by the mainstream media is that, once again, approximately 30% of self-described Latino voters went for Republicans in 2018. That they did so as the president rails on incessantly about building a wall to repel those who want to follow them northward to the US is extraordinary. If Latinos keep drifting toward the Republican Party, it will overturn the ethnic apple cart that has underpinned so much of the crystal ball gazing about the future of American politics in recent years.

What Trump could do 

In the shorter term, President Trump will find it far harder to advance much of his legislative agenda and will face unprecedented scrutiny from the new majority in the House. One of the key things to watch is whether the president, who has robustly repudiated many aspects of orthodox conservatism, can do business with Democrats.

In particular, an initiative to spend taxpayer money to rebuild American infrastructure may provoke the ire of laissez-faire economic conservatives, but will be music to the ears of workers who have been left behind across Middle America and tricky for Democrats to push back on.

Because the Republicans took a midterm shellacking in the three industrial states that put Donald Trump over the top in 2016 – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – a comprehensive plan to fix badly ailing roads, bridges, railways, etc. could bolster his re-election prospects immensely. Whether he can get past the petty personal grievances that clearly affect his relationships with House Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is another question, though.

The next election 

As 2019 begins, observers will turn their gaze to the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, this will soon dominate discourse. It would be a mistake to read too much into the early polls showing an older generation of Democrats – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, even 2004 nominee John Kerry – way out in front of a host of lesser known aspirants. The recently rumoured Biden-Beto ticket indicates that the former vice president understands the daunting obstacles to his third run for the White House.

On this occasion, the midterms did not produce a clear frontrunner for the nomination. The Democratic Party remains a house divided. Certainly, there is momentum and passion among young progressives who despise the president and believe that there is strength in being unabashedly on the left. They are inspired by, among others, O’Rourke, Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris and New York congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

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Election 2020 Women Beto O'Rourke Source: Eric Gay

On the flip side, the numerical realities of the electoral college system mean that the road to Pennsylvania Avenue leads through the heartland, not the coasts. Accordingly, it will be interesting to see if the party may rally around aspirants such as Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Montana governor Steve Bullock or former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu – Democrats with a track record of winning elections in less than friendly territory. Whether party activists favour electability or ideological purity in selecting their candidate may determine who ultimately prevails in the primaries. Experience will be a crucial factor also.

Depressing new truths

President Donald Trump will still dominate the headlines in the US and beyond. His unpredictable and often abhorrent behaviour has a rather car crash-like effect. Even those who cannot abide him seek out and absorb his every tweet. What the Mueller investigation in the end produces – count me as a sceptic when it comes to evidence of actual collusion between his campaign and the Russians – will inevitably be the political story of 2019. How the president might pivot politically and otherwise in the aftermath is the subject of endless conjecture.

This is, in itself, one of the depressing new truths about American politics. Instead of policy details, we anticipate the next salacious story or deliberate outrage. Instead of objective analysis, supposedly neutral perspectives are shaped almost invariably by how those who share them regard President Trump. There is plenty of blame to be shared across the ideological spectrum on this front.

One can only hope that the present state of play across the ocean is a blip on the radar, not the new norm. But despair can be forgiven. At any rate, developments will be monitored on an ongoing basis in this space in 2019.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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