Blue wave, or fired-up GOP base? _00020210.jpg
Blue wave, or fired-up GOP base?
04:46 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Tim Naftali, who teaches public policy at NYU Wagner and History at NYU, is co-author of “Impeachment: An American History” with Jon Meacham, Peter Baker and Jeffrey A. Engel. The views expressed here are solely his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The American political landscape is full of plenty of contradictions, which is the reason prognosticators are wary about predicting with great confidence the balance of power in Washington and in the states after the midterms.

Most Americans believe the economy is in good shape. Unemployment is at its lowest level in nearly 50 years and the economy is growing faster than since the best economic years of the Obama era. These are traditionally good signs for a party that controls both the White House and Congress.

But we are living in the Trumpian moment, and despite a recent uptick, President Trump’s approval ratings remain among the lowest on record for a first-term president, and his party’s national popularity is even lower. Moreover, this distaste is more than just a rejection of style or conduct. On most of the key issues of the day – health care, women’s rights, climate change, immigration – the Republican Party, now the Trump Party, does not represent the desires of a majority of Americans.

Tim Naftali

Taking these issues one by one, one sees the outlines of what should be a major course correction in American politics:

A substantial majority of Americans – 60% – believe that global warming is occurring and 60% believe that human activity is at least “partially responsible,” according to a survey from the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy. Nevertheless, the Trump administration not only pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and remains a cheerleader for the carbon-belching coal industry, but has also moved to overturn most of the Obama-era measures designed to reduce carbon emissions going forward.

Meanwhile, according to Kaiser, 75% of the public believe it is “very important” to maintain the Affordable Care Act’s guarantee of health insurance coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently reminded voters that the Republican Party remains hell-bent on eliminating any trace of the Affordable Care Act, which could endanger the protection for coverage of pre-existing conditions, one of the legislation’s signature measures.

On the issue of abortion, when Americans are not asked about the polarizing terms of “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” but are asked instead about the legality of abortion, 29% of respondents say that abortion should be legal under all circumstances and 50% under certain circumstances, according to Gallup. Only 18% share the position of many Republican cultural conservatives, who believe it should be illegal in all circumstances. And yet the Trump administration and congressional Republicans used their collective platforms to signal that federal court vacancies were being filled with jurists who were pro-life.

Finally, although, according to Gallup, at least 83% favor granting citizenship to those brought to the United States by their parents illegally as children and 57% oppose building a border wall, President Trump has orchestrated a Republican midterm strategy founded on the shrillest and most hostile approach to immigration by any political party in a century.

This is not the first time Washington has been so out of step with most of the country. It happens with some regularity in our history. And, not surprisingly, the US constitutional system has a built-in safety valve for dealing with those moments of disconnect between the governing and the governed. It is called the midterm election. In 1946, 1954, 1986, 1994, 2006 and 2010, for example, these elections balanced against the accumulation of too much power by one side in Washington.

And yet less than two weeks away from safety valve day, Democrats and many observers are nervous the system may not be able to correct itself. There is no doubt that Democrats will gain seats in the House. But it is not a given they will reach the magic number of 23 and, in the Senate, there is only a small chance the Democrats will add to their current number of 49 and, indeed, are much more likely to lose one or more seats.

How? Why? One of the characteristics of American midterm elections is that the angry come out to vote while the party of power’s friends don’t. On average only 40% of eligible voters participate in midterm elections. In 2014, our last midterm election, the number was a sickly 37%. It may be hard to believe, but those wave elections of 1994 and 2010, which so shaped this country’s political and cultural landscape, were ignored by almost 60% of eligible voters.

All this is what is making the 2018 midterms so difficult to predict. If American tradition were to hold – the enthusiasm of Democratic fundraising, the participation in Democratic primaries, the number of Republican retirements, and how out of step President Trump continues to be with most of the country – predicting a blue wave (even with a strong economy) should be a great bet. But, in this populist age where celebrity appears to trump expertise, past patterns may be broken. There is anger to be mobilized on both sides and Donald J. Trump has already proven that he is a relentless agitator who knows how to scare his own supporters to the polls.

And if the balance of anger in this Trumpian moment doesn’t undermine our constitutional safety valve, voter apathy still might. The New York Times-Siena Live Polls consistently show large numbers of undecided voters in a lot of the key races that Democrats need to win to take the House. Recent polls in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District and Florida’s 27th, for example, had 11% and 15% undecided, respectively.

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    Historically, the balancing against power in Washington has happened despite the fact that too many of us view elections – especially midterms – as spectator sports or don’t care about them at all. How this can be in a country that prides itself on the blessings of liberty is a question for another time. But what if this healthy cycle of rebalancing is broken in 2018 despite two years of Trumpian chaos, disrespect for large swathes of our society and daily contempt for dissent?

    With only a matter of days to go, the outcome of the struggle in the current three-person race among center-left anger, Trumpist rage and widespread apathy remains remarkably TBD. If our Agitator in Chief’s 2018 Provocation Tour falls short, Donald J. Trump will be the clear loser and our constitutional system the winner. But if he manages to cheat history, our political system will face its strongest stress test in the modern era.