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Foreign Policy

Democrats Wrest Control of the House of Representatives

Nov 26, 2018
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies


In a certain sense, the U.S. midterm elections were a contest between Trumpism and traditional American politics. Trump won the presidential election on the back of the populist wave that swept America. Once he became U.S. president, he continued to incite populism under the banner of “America First,” leading to a period of diplomatic isolationism. Domestically, he has changed U.S. politics. First, he has transformed the Republican Party through a process of “Trumpization,” to which the Establishment succumbed. Nevertheless, a political tradition in the U.S. is the separation of powers to create checks and balances. American voters do not want one-party rule, so they are used to maintaining a balance between the White House and Congress. During the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994, while during the Obama administration, the Democrats lost its majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. Before the latest midterm elections, many observers were wondering, given the power of the populist movement and the way Trumpism has swept through American politics, whether the checks and balances still worked, and whether there was anything that could stop Trump. In the end, the Republicans lost their majority in the House, which they had controlled for eight years, indicating that although Trump has a strong following, the rules of traditional politics still apply. The U.S. electorate has signaled its wish to curtail him.

One of the characteristics of U.S. politics at the moment is polarization. Historically, moderates have made up the majority of each party, and the difference in terms of policy stances between the moderates of each party was traditionally less than the difference between moderates and extremists within each party. Under these circumstances, it was easy to reach compromises and reach consensuses between the moderates of the two parties. This has been the way in American politics for some time. But since the Iraq War, the situation has changed. The moderate factions in each party have gradually shrunk, while the extremist factions in each party have grown significantly. This situation became particularly apparent during Obama’s second term, to which Obama even alluded and expressed his regret in his final State of the Union Address.

The constraints placed on the previously freewheeling Trump by the midterm results will mainly be seen in domestic issues.

The reform of Medicare was Obama’s most significant political legacy. Trump attempted to overturn the reform when he took office but without a credible alternative. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knew it would be difficult to achieve and did not fully support the move, which ultimately put him in Trump’s firing line. At present, the reforms that can be implemented have been done, and it is not possible for Trump to roll back those reforms.

On the issue of climate change, Democrats and Republicans have considerably different views. During his second term, Obama was able to push his agenda through using executive orders, but Trump quickly abolished those policies when he took office. This issue relates to the core beliefs of the Democratic Party.

Immigration is a long-standing issue in the U.S. Obama attempted to implement reforms in this area, even seeking to open up dialogue with top congressional Republicans, but Republicans overwhelmingly rejected his ideas, leaving the reforms dead in the water. After Trump took office, he cracked down on immigration several times, causing an uproar on each occasion. He now faces migrant caravans arriving from Central and South America, and the struggle between the two parties will be fierce. Trump’s original plan to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border looks like it will be derailed.

The Republican Party has always advocated tax cuts. During the Regan era, it was a subject of bipartisan controversy, with Democrats accusing Republicans of “reverse Robin Hood-ism” for robbing the poor to pay the rich. Trump has already implemented generous tax cuts, pushing the U.S. budget deficit higher, and he has signaled his intent to implement a second wave of cuts. With the Democrats controlling the House, however, further tax cuts will be difficult to implement.

 An important issue that the Democrats may wish to exert pressure on is the budget. The Democratic Party does not approve of the Trump administration’s soaring defense spending. It has been unhappy with the previous two budgets and believes that the White House is giving the Pentagon free rein. Military deployments, military spending, and weapons R&D and acquisitions will all come under the microscope, meaning Trump’s defense spending plans will face severe challenges. Since the Cold War ended, the federal government has ground to a halt several times because Congress could not agree a budget. Such a situation may be difficult to avoid in the next two years.

The Democratic Party’s control of the House of Representatives will also impact foreign policy.

The U.S.’s network of allies is an important pillar of its global hegemony. Trump, however, does not pay it due respect, as he often offends and even humiliates America’s allies. The House will take steps to repair relations with its allies, including Europe, Japan, and South Korea.

The Iranian nuclear issue has long been a source of fierce disagreement between the two parties. The Republican Party was strongly opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed in 2015, so the Trump administration was quick to withdraw from the Iran deal and impose fresh sanctions on Iran. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will re-raise this issue, which will lead to a congressional tussle between the two parties.

U.S. observers universally believe that North Korea’s nuclear program is a threat to U.S. national security. Democrats have criticized Trump’s stance on North Korea as being rash and changeable, and the House of Representatives will obviously strengthen its supervision of the President on this issue.

Over the past two years, the Washington establishment has relentlessly pursued the Russia probe, repeatedly frustrating Trump’s attempts to improve relations with Russia. A Democrat majority in the House may lead to calls to expand the investigation. Regardless of its outcome, an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations seems a long way off.

Since Democrats and Republicans share basically the same policy on China, the midterm elections are unlikely to have a direct impact on the U.S.’s China policy. It is worth noting, however, that Democrats are stronger proponents of human rights, so the House of Representatives may issue more articles in this area.

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