How the final weeks of 2018 will shape American politics in 2019

The tone for 2019 has been set in waning days of 2018. It all started with the headlines about the Oval Office meeting between President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE, presumed House Speaker designate Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiClub for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout Governors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight MORE, and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerProtect America's houses of worship in year-end appropriations package Club for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout Inequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift MORE said it all: “heated meeting,” “rowdy powwow,” “so depressing,” “WWE event.” What were supposed to be simple remarks from these leaders to the White House press pool, before a closed door meeting, quickly devolved into an acrimonious back and forth on live television, while Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump set for precedent-breaking lame-duck period Trump pardons Michael Flynn O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' MORE remained silent, to the delight of social media. Perhaps the comparison to the WWE event was most apt.

The Republicans who love Trump saw a forceful president standing up to out of touch liberals. The “resistance” Democrats saw their leaders maneuvering an angry president into saying that he would be “proud” to force a government shutdown. Each side had their faces and heels and, consistent with a spirit of political kayfabe, nothing actually meaningful happened, but everyone left the room with the soundbites they wanted.


For 2019, we will probably see more of this. Political observers used to think that odd numbered years were an opportunity to get things done. Lawmakers can compromise safe in the knowledge that the voters would forget about their violations of partisan orthodoxy before the next election. There is little chance that the conventional wisdom will hold. Little conventional wisdom survives in this modern era where we dig our political trenches deeper and a wilderness replaces the political center.

The Republican caucus in Congress is smaller and more rural, but much more aligned with the Trump wing of the party. While fealty to the Trump agenda plays well in their districts, they ask themselves how long they can hold out as trade wars and heated rhetoric roil the markets. Republican foreign policy hawks see whiplash, rather than winning, from a president putting faith in his gut instincts instead of his national security team.

Across the aisle, the Democratic caucus in Congress has expanded, but the party leadership needs to control divergent movements. Coming from urban areas, a new generation of legislators is ready to pull Washington to the left, emboldened by the support from their constituents for identity politics and social democracy. They must, however, contend with more moderate Democrats who won by appealing to independents and those disaffected Republicans living in highly educated and affluent suburbs.

One thing that unifies Democrats on Capitol Hill is a desire for forceful oversight of the executive branch, which the outgoing Republican majority did not provide. With the Trump companies, Trump campaign, and members of the Trump cabinet all under some form of investigation, the White House is already in a siege mentality, which signals that the president and his staff do not see 2019 through a lens of compromise.

House Democrats, in the words of Benjamin Wittes summarizing the investigations surrounding the Trump administration, are “the big new army marching on the Trump fortress.” With such a tremendous sense of besiegement, the stark logic is to shore up the Republican base and delegitimize Democratic opposition in advance of 2020. They may even pick certain fights, hoping to goad House Democrats into overreaching. That is before any thought of the prospects of an impeachment battle.

Democrats have few opportunities to enact their policy agenda, since they are boxed in by a Trump White House and Republican Senate. Furthermore, nearly any Democrat who can fog a mirror, is a natural born citizen, age 35 or older, and able to book a ticket to Iowa has sights on 2020. That means that there will be plenty of jostling to satisfy their progressive base and secure endorsements in the “invisible” primary.

In 2019, the permanent campaign and the 24 hour news cycle continue to march onward, and the American people still pay the price. Barring a transformation in the political ecosystem that changes the incentives on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the major problems this country faces will remain unresolved. Even if a badly needed rebuild of infrastructure is one area upon which the Trump administration and Democratic leaders in Congress might agree, what might encourage this kind of compromise?

We are in the midst of a technological revolution transforming everything, from what jobs we do and how we do them, to how we protect the United States. Yet, our politics narrowly focuses on special interests. After more than 17 years of war, our military is stretched as political leaders select “all of the above” as a grand strategy. Both parties have done away with any pretense of fiscal probity, so the national debt continues its stratospheric ascent, mortgaging our future and hamstringing future generations.

Given the tumult of American politics in 2018, we must consider what surprises and crises 2019 might hold. For all of its ups and downs, 2018 witnessed a robust economic growth and relative international calm. Those trends cannot be taken for granted by those in Washington in 2019. What capacity do our current politics have to provide stable leadership if the geopolitical or economic situation deteriorates? It is hard to say.

Inside the beltway, the forecast for 2019 remains cloudy with a chance of storms. If there is one silver lining in those clouds, it would be the push for grassroots political reform. Even if the political environment today is more Wrestlemania than Project Solarium, the American people can start, in their own communities and neighborhoods, to reshape our trajectory.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and the director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.