Trump faces a similar test, with polls predicting the Republicans will lose control of the House of Representatives but might hold the Senate
Tomorrow's midterms could be a repeat of Clinton's catastrophic errors in the 1990s
America’s midterm elections take place tomorrow, giving voters the opportunity to deliver a rebuke to Donald Trump and steer the US in a different direction. But will we see a repetition of November 1994, when then president Bill Clinton and his New Democrats were thoroughly humiliated? The results then were so bad that one commentator prophesied “curtains for Clinton”. Republicans swept into the Senate and House of Representatives and America lurched heavily to the right. Mr Clinton said he would work with his political opponents “to serve all the American people in a non-partisan manner” and by 1996, he himself lurched to the right, claiming “the era of big government is over”.
Mr Trump tomorrow faces a similar test. The polls predict the Republicans will lose control of the House of Representatives but might hold the Senate. Polls are never entirely reliable as Republicans tend to turn out in greater numbers than Democrats in these elections and many members of Congress have strong personal followings, regardless of their party. A big turnout is predicted but even if a Democrat surge enables the party to seize the House of Representatives, what then for a divided government in a divided America?
Mr Trump could do a Clinton and promise to work with his political opponents but it didn’t work for Mr Clinton and it won’t work now. In the 1990s, Republicans used control in Congress to block Mr Clinton’s plans. They began far-reaching investigations into the financial activities of the Clintons. Those inquiries got nowhere until by chance, they uncovered the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. When Mr Clinton lied about Miss Lewinsky, he was impeached.
If the Democrats gain ground, we can expect fireworks, not co-operation, in a new-look Congress in January next year. Democrats and their voters truly loathe Mr Trump. A Democratic House of Representatives will do what it can to frustrate his policies and will undoubtedly begin investigations into Mr Trump's finances and business relationships. This will focus on any Russian involvement and possibly other allegations against the president, especially those made by women.
The political atmosphere in Washington in the Clinton era was toxic but it is much worse now. While Mr Clinton spent nearly two years trying to justify his one claim that he did not "have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”, the US media claims Mr Trump’s lies are in the thousands. Any investigation into his assertions will have plenty to explore.
But behind all this lies a far bigger question. What happens to American government and leadership? Mr Trump has significantly diminished America’s stature in the world. He is seen as an unreliable president, making America an unreliable ally. His judgment cannot be trusted and he contradicts himself without apparently feeling any personal embarrassment.
But Democrats have to be careful. The lesson of Mr Clinton is appropriate here too. After investigations that tied up the US government from 1995 onwards, Mr Clinton was acquitted in February 1999, following a five-week trial. When he left office in January 2001, his job approval rating was actually higher than it had been when he took office in 1993. The naked hostility of the Republican Congress meant he could blame them for any failures or mistakes by his administration.
Mr Trump does not have Mr Clinton’s political skills but he does possess his own peculiar charm. He must not be written off, even if the Democrats win tomorrow. Despite all the alleged scandals and lies, about 40 per cent of Americans tell opinion pollsters that they approve of Mr Trump as president.
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Americans have little appetite for another Washington political circus resulting in impeachment proceedings that will almost certainly fail. If Democrats go beyond investigations and really do consider impeachment, they will probably burn only themselves. After all, Mr Trump is president because he railed against the shenanigans of the “swamp”. His political armoury is well-stocked with invective against the institutions of the capital. He constantly presents himself as the “victim” of everything from so-called fake news to unwarranted investigations by the FBI. And unlike Mr Clinton, who appeared both contrite and ashamed over the Lewinsky affair, Mr Trump seems to have been born without the capacity to feel or show shame.
Perversely, there might even be a political advantage for Mr Trump if the Republican Party loses control of the House of Representatives. He will have someone else to blame for his inability to achieve anything. In the past few days, Mr Trump has insisted he can unilaterally end the right to US citizenship of children born in America to foreign parents. That’s simply not true. He can’t. He has sent troops to the southern border to turn back migrants and, of course, he constantly says he is going to “build a wall” between the US and Mexico.
These stunts will, in the long term, probably not mean much. But, right now, Republicans control every part of the US government, which means that only Republicans can be blamed for Mr Trump’s failures. If the Democrats win big in the midterms, they will inadvertently become accomplices to the divider-in-chief’s numerous policy failures.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter