Impending ‘Battle of the Bases’ will make governing afterward difficult — no matter who wins

Impending ‘Battle of the Bases’ will make governing afterward difficult — no matter who wins
© Getty Images

The 2018 campaign will be the Battle of the Bases – a showdown between President Donald Trump's Republican base and the Democrats' progressive base. Base elections are more about rallying your core supporters than about persuading uncommitted voters. Independents and moderates are treated like a "third sex."  Who needs 'em?

A Member of Congress once said, "In politics, you have to have a base. Your base is the people who are with you when you're wrong." Sooner or later, everyone in public life is bound to be wrong. Ronald Reagan’s base stayed with him during the Iran-contra scandal.  Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Getting politics out of the pit Kavanaugh and the 'boys will be boys' sentiment is a poor excuse for bad behavior MORE’s base remained strong during his impeachment ordeal. To the amazement of old political hands (like me), Donald Trump kept his base – even his evangelical base – during the controversy over the "Access Hollywood" tape in 2016. 

The base wants a fighter, and Trump is certainly that. "Traditionally in the two-party system, politicians and their team try to make their base bigger," former Mississippi Governor and Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour told The New York Times. "Trump keeps trying to make his base harder."

Trump did not create the bitter division in American politics. It goes back to the 1960s. Bill Clinton once said, "If you look back on the sixties and, on balance, you think there was more good than harm in it, you're probably a Democrat. And if you think there's more harm than good, you're probably a Republican."

Trump succeeded four presidents in a row who tried to heal that division. They all failed. The first President Bush promised a "kinder, gentler America." He got fired after one term. Bill Clinton called himself a "New Democrat" and an apostle of the "Third Way." He got impeached. The second President Bush said he was "a uniter, not a divider." He left the country more divided than ever. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGetting politics out of the pit To cure Congress, elect more former military members Democrats should end their hypocrisy when it comes to Kavanaugh and the judiciary MORE said, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America." He was proved wrong.

Trump never pretended to be a healer. He ran as a divider. He got elected as a divider. And he governs as a divider. The president and vice president are the only officeholders in the U.S. elected by the whole country. But President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE doesn’t act as if he is president of the whole country. He acts as if he is president of his base.

The art of governing doesn’t interest this president too much. He comes into his own at campaign rallies, where his rhetoric is becoming increasingly unhinged. He has pledged to do six or seven rallies a week during the fall campaign.

Trump polarizes the electorate, deliberately intensifying divisions over issues like immigration, race and trade. He said he would have "no problemforcing a shutdown of the federal government in October if he doesn’t get the immigration restrictions he wants, including funding for a border wall with Mexico. The prospect of a government shutdown horrifies congressional Republicans. To Trump’s base, however, it signals his willingness to fight. They see the president as a rule breaker who gets things done.

A strategy of mobilizing your base countermobilizes the opposition. That’s exactly what’s happening. Democratic congressional candidates are raising more money than Republicans, more even than Republican incumbents. Democratic primary turnout this year is setting records in state after state. Trump has brought the progressive movement back to life after the demoralizing losses of Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersProtecting democracy requires action from all of us Kavanaugh hires attorney amid sexual assault allegations: report Amazon probes allegations of employees leaking data for bribes: report MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Clinton: Hard to ignore 'racial subtext of virtually everything Trump says' MORE in 2016. While Trump's candidate was winning the recent Republican primary for governor of Florida, Bernie Sanders' candidate defeated the establishment Democrat and won the Democratic primary.

A student once asked me, "Is this the most divided we've ever been as a country?" I responded, "We did once have a Civil War. Three quarters of a million Americans died during the Civil War. But this is probably the most divided we've been since that terrible time."

If Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives, they will be under enormous pressure to impeach Trump. He's a rule breaker, and rule breakers often get into trouble. Impeachment will take over the political agenda, just as it did in 1998. Republicans will rally to support President Trump just as Democrats rallied to support President Clinton. 1998 was the first midterm election in 64 years in which the president's party gained seats in the House of Representatives.

A base campaign is bound to be relentlessly negative. And divisive. It will make governing difficult because after the election, the parties won't be able to work together. It endangers democracy because each party treats its opponents as illegitimate. The winning party sees victory, however narrow, as a mandate to destroy everything the other party has done. For Trump, that means eradicating all traces of Barack Obama’s presidency including health care reform, environmental protection, trade agreements and treaties. If Trump ever succeeds in building his promised wall on the Mexican border, Democratic candidates will race to the wall to hold rallies and shout, "Mr. President – tear down this wall!"

We will end up with cycles of lunging political revenge, first one party and then the other aiming to undo everything its opponents did in office. Hope and inspiration – the political style of both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama – will no longer be in evidence.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).