Losing the House next Tuesday might be the best thing that has ever happened to Donald Trump.
Consider this: In the post-World War II era, four presidents have lost the House of Representatives during their first midterm election: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. All four rebounded to win reelection two years later.
For obvious reasons, people like winning better than losing. Having congressional majorities allows presidents to pass their agendas, which—theoretically—helps them get reelected. What is more (and this is especially apt in the case of Trump’s administration), losing means handing subpoena power to your political opponents. These are not small things. Yet, modern history, as we see above, suggests losing a midterm is far from fatal and is, in fact, probably helpful.
That’s not to say losing the House is the key to winning reelection. Ronald Reagan never had a House majority to begin with, so he couldn’t lose it. Still, like most presidents, Reagan suffered losses in the midterms (losing 26 House seats in 1982). Just like Truman, Eisenhower, Clinton, and Obama, Reagan rebounded by winning reelection (in his case, by a landslide in 1984).
So why would losing the House in 2018 actually help Trump’s chances in 2020?
First, winning would create challenges for Democrats. Believing they have a mandate, the party would be tempted to veer leftward and possibly pursue impeachment (falling for the same trap that Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues fell for in the late '90s). On the other hand, if Democrats resist the urge to lurch leftward, they could risk alienating a political base that turned out to vote for them in hopes of enacting a liberal agenda. Regardless of which side prevails, fights would break out over leadership positions (should Pelosi become Speaker again, etc.).
Second, losing the House would allow Trump to (plausibly) spread the blame. Right now, Republicans own everything that happens—or doesn’t happen. That changes the minute Democrats take over the House.
Trump might even take a page from Harry Truman’s playbook. Heading into the 1946 midterm elections, Truman was wildly unpopular, which resulted in Republicans picking up 55 House seats and 12 Senate seats. It was widely believed that Truman would suffer a similar fate in 1948, losing the presidential election. Yet, Truman famously defied the odds by running against the famous “Do-Nothing Congress” and winning reelection.
Similarly, one can imagine Donald Trump making 2020 a referendum on the Democratic Congress. Even with Nancy Pelosi out of power, Republicans have effectively demonized her in local races. Imagine what Donald Trump could do with a Speaker Pelosi (or whoever becomes the face of the Democratic Party).
Lastly, one of the maxims of the tech industry is to “fail fast.” It is a much better alternative to failing slow. Consider George W. Bush, who defied the odds by actually picking up seats during the 2002 midterm elections, which came in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Although he went on to (narrowly) win reelection, his second term was a bust; the 2006 midterms swept Democrats back in control of the House, finally forcing Bush to make changes (including replacing Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld).
One wonders what a more chastened Bush administration might have looked like. Would Bush have benefited from getting his “thumping” out of the way in 2002? We might have seen a more prudent and humble presidency.
After suffering his own “shellacking” in 2010, Barack Obama declared: "You know, this is something that I think every president needs to go through…” I think he was on to something.
I’m not suggesting that a loss on Tuesday will cause an introspective Donald Trump to pivot or “move to the center.” If we have learned anything these last two years, it is that “infrastructure week” is a mirage. I don’t foresee Trump deciding to work across the aisle with “Chuck and Nancy.” He’s much more likely to “give ‘em hell” like Harry Truman than he is to “triangulate” like Bill Clinton.
Still, it is entirely possible that a midterm loss would force his administration to make some needed adjustments. And those adjustments might pay off in 2020. (If you think the odds of Trump learning from his mistakes are long now, just imagine what they would be like if he wins.)
For my skeptical conservative friends who think it is insane to believe that Republicans losing the House might actually benefit Trump: I hear you. The good news is that the U.S. Senate (which Republicans appear poised to hold) would determine whether another Trump nominee made it to the Supreme Court—and would still approve all of his nominees to lower federal courts and other executive branch positions. Should impeachment ever be on the table, the Senate would vote on whether or not to convict (and that would require a two-thirds vote).
If Democrats take the House, the media will portray this (predictably) as a MAJOR(!) SETBACK(!) to the president. In fact, though, it could be the best thing that ever happened to him.
Sometimes losing is winning and winning is losing. This is especially true of midterm elections.