Voters Want Prudence, Not Politics

The late House Speaker Sam Rayburn used to say that “there is no education in the second kick of a mule.” Reading soon-to-be-former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s announcement that he and his committee had subpoenaed former FBI Director James Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to testify in front of closed-door hearings over the investigation of Russian meddling in 2016 and the Hillary Clinton email controversy, I wondered just how many kicks certain House Republicans need before they realize the consequence of some of their actions.

Clearly they have not received the message that antics like this contributed to their 39- or 40-seat loss (depending upon the outcome of GOP Rep. David Valadao’s reelection contest in California’s 21st District) and their soon-to-be minority status in the House. After all, given this current configuration of congressional district boundaries and natural population patterns concentrating the Democratic vote in urban areas, it wasn’t easy for Republicans to lose this majority. Just three or four years ago, many of us thought that the next shot Democrats might get at a House majority would be in the next decade under a new set of lines.

Of course, Goodlatte is retiring as well, so in January he would be the former chairman anyway, as will Rep. Trey Gowdy, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman who similarly abused his gavel playing for the cameras and taking advantage of the tragedy in Benghazi. So neither will be in a position of enjoy the full ambiance of minority status that their remaining colleagues will—though it’s worth noting that Rep. Devin Nunes, whose antics managed to make the House Intelligence Committee an oxymoron, will be back in January to enjoy the fruits of his labors.

The 2018 midterm election certainly was a referendum on President Trump, who had a positive impact for Republicans in small-town and rural America and in much of the South, but not so much in urban and suburban America, where more people live. Yet the hyper-partisanship, score-settling, and witch hunts that so many (but certainly not all) House Republicans engaged in—while their Senate Republican colleagues largely refrained—did not help the GOP any on Nov. 6. Playing to the base works well in the base but doesn’t really help much among the rest of the electorate, which would rather see politicians focus their efforts on addressing real problems in the country and the world, not playing attack dog against members of the opposition party.

Especially in the election’s immediate aftermath, may people suggested it was more of a ripple than a wave. That’s a nice turn of phrase, but this was an 8-point popular-vote win for Democrats, as computed by Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman’s real-time updated spreadsheet of House results. Republicans lost more seats (four) in Orange County, California than Democrats lost in 50 states, lost longtime Republican suburban districts outside of Dallas and Houston, and no longer have a single House seat in New England. That is a wave, even if it isn’t a tidal wave or a tsunami as 1994 and 2010 were for Republicans. It’s easy to play games with numbers, and people on both sides engage in it: One TV talk show host was talking about the massive repudiation of Trump and the Republican Party with the biggest Democratic House gains in 44 years, since the 1974 Watergate midterm election, while ignoring the huge Republican gains in 1994 (54 seats) and 2010 (63 seats). This win was big, but some on the Left got a bit carried away with the magnitude of it.

This should be a time for prudent Republicans to contemplate their party’s future, to think about the long-term implications of their policies and rhetoric in light of a rapidly changing country with very different demographics than the one reflected of late by the GOP.

But there is an important lesson for House Democrats and their party’s base in this too. Their animosity toward Trump is no less than what some on the Republican side had for President Obama and Hillary Clinton. In this hyper-partisan environment, blind hatred can often color judgment and make even intelligent and reasonably balanced people engage in irrational and destructive behavior. The new majority could start its own set of fishing expeditions, launching inquisitions and exploiting Benghazi-like tragedies for political gain. For Democrats, the cost could come in the form of soiling their own nest ahead of the 2020 elections, when they really do have a chance of getting their hands back on the presidency and the Senate (though the latter looks to be a bit more difficult than it initially appeared).

Prudence and balance are in increasingly short supply in American politics these days. Both sides should keep that in mind.