Iowans may have cast their ballots in hope of bringing one long campaign to an end, but they may have been setting the course for the next.
A new Democratic majority in the U.S. House may not result in significant policy changes, but is likely to change the tone in Washington for the next two years as both parties prepare for the 2020 presidential election.
“I expect them to move quickly on resisting the Trump administration” with an eye on 2020, University of Northern Iowa political scientist Donna Hoffman said about the Democratic takeover. That’s also when the Senate map is more favorable to Democrats and President Donald Trump is on the ballot.
“Democrats will be weighing the size of their victory in the context of the 2020 presidential election,” Chris Larimer, political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa said. If they believe the 2018 election was a precipitating event — “the beginning of a wave like 2006 was for 2008, then perhaps they will push harder on their agenda and resisting the Trump administration.”
Coe College political science professor Bruce Nesmith agreed that the size of the Democrats’ margin may determine how aggressive they are trying to “pass some stuff through the House to create a record for 2020.”
They can push as hard as they want, but with the Senate still in Republican control, it will be hard for Democrats to make significant changes to policy.
A divided Congress — GOP control of the Senate and Democratic control in the House — likely means more gridlock, said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor.
The parties will be a check on each other, added UI political science professor Tim Hagle.
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“Which is standing in the way of the other? Depends on one’s point of view,” Hagle said. “But each, of course, would portray the other as obstructionists going into 2020.”
There’s some thought a Democratic win could actually work against the party being united and help Republicans.
“There’s a potential that Democrats move so far to the left to satisfy the progressive wing that some in the middle will drop away and could be picked up by Republicans,” Hagle speculated.
For political reasons, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might prefer a Democratic-controlled House “so they can simply play politics for the next two years leading up to the presidential election,” Iowa State University political scientist Dave Andersen said.
House Democrats are likely to pursue passage of tuition-free college bills, Medicare-for-all and Medicaid expansions to “set the stage for 2020,” he said.
Hagle could see Democrats passing health care fixes “for political purposes rather than an actual expectation that something could become law.”
But as long as there is split control of Congress, expansion of the Affordable Care Act will be “impossible,” Covington added.
In that case, the president might rather have more liberal Democrats in charge because “they’re easier to demonize in the run-up to 2020,” he said.
Beyond the 2020 implications, there are areas where the parties and president could work together, but expectations for legislative accomplishments are not high.
With the Senate remaining in Republican hands, “I wouldn’t expect much of a legislative agenda that would go anywhere,” UNI’s Hoffman said.
An infrastructure package — “one with lots of spending for lots of Congress members” — might have a chance of winning bipartisan support, Hagle said.
Andersen sees passage of an infrastructure package as “a long shot, but possible” if Democrat Nancy Pelosi is not the House speaker. There’s more likelihood that a new speaker could work with Trump, he said. Passage of an infrastructure bill also offers the best possibility of Trump becoming a popular president.
“If he works with a Democratic speaker to pass some popular legislation, he might be able to bring Trump Republicans and Democrats together in support of his agenda,” Andersen said.
The challenge for Trump then might be winning support from McConnell.
Covington doesn’t share his colleague’s cautious optimism, speculating that House Democrats will propose more public spending while Trump favors public-private partnership so “it will be hard for them to get together.”
“I think you’ll see two ships pass in the night,” he said.
What and how much gets accomplished might depend on the House Democratic leadership.
Hoffman and Covington think Pelosi will be speaker.
“She’s effective and tenacious,” Hoffman said.
Andersen sees Pelosi with the inside track “mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a prominent challenger.”
“If someone, particularly a young, charismatic challenger, decides to run against her, it could become a bitter fight that will divide the party,” he said.
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While some younger members of the Democratic caucus have indicated they’d like to see someone challenge Pelosi’s leadership, the time to do that would have been when Democrats lost the majority, not regained it, Hagle said.
“Pelosi probably has enough power and can distribute enough favors to stay in power for another cycle,” he said.
Still, Chris Larimer, who teaches political science at UNI, would be surprised if she continues to wield the speaker’s gavel.
“My sense is that the Democrats will look to someone younger who can appeal to a younger generation that I imagine Democrats will be targeting in 2020,” Larimer said. “If youth turnout is high this cycle, the party will want to keep that going.”
Also, given what a polarizing figure Pelosi has become, “if she is elected I think you will see the Trump administration use her to try to motivate Republicans for 2020,” he said.
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