By Mark Penn
Published November 07, 2018
America woke up Wednesday as divided as it was the day before the midterm elections, driven even further apart by two political parties that spent the campaign appealing to their base voters rather than trying to unify the country.
These strategies may have worked to produce partial wins for each party, but they only further weakened the fabric of a country that craves unity, not division.
The person elected president in 2020, I believe, will be the candidate who brings Americans together across party lines.
The voters meted out rough justice in a split decision Tuesday. They enabled Democrats to flip control of the U.S. House and replace Republicans as the majority party there. But at the same time, voters gave Republicans a bigger majority in the Senate.
House Republicans lost support in part because they made a mess of health care when it became clear that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had no real plan to replace ObamaCare. Ryan then said he would not seek re-election, as did 40 other Republican House members.
Yet Ryan has continued on as speaker to serve out the remainder of his term, staying on as a message-less leader of House Republicans.
Voters made clear Tuesday they had had enough of the gridlock-creating divisions in the chamber that Ryan has been unable to end.
In the Senate, it was the Democrats running for president who overreached and lost their credibility through their unbridled opposition and character assassination leveled at now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. The Democrats faced the wrath of the voters for their excessive partisanship.
And despite a roaring economy benefitting all Americans, President Trump also chose to appeal to his base rather than to the entire electorate as he campaigned for GOP candidates around the country.
The president made the decision to double-down on his campaign against illegal immigration to bring out his core supporters, while the Democrats hit on health-care and anti-Trumpism to bring out their base.
President Trump stumped in Republican strongholds, while President Obama traveled to urban Democratic areas to campaign for Democratic candidates. The strategy of both was to motivate their supporters to cast ballots, rather than trying to win over new supporters.
Once they become the majority party in the House in January, the Democrats will gain the power of the purse, plus subpoena power to investigate President Trump and his administration.
And with a larger GOP majority in the Senate, the president will now have an easier time getting his nominations of high-ranking federal officials and judges confirmed.
This includes a new attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions, who resigned Wednesday at the request of President Trump after frequently incurring the president's public wrath. The attorney general also has subpoena power, plus Justice Department attorneys and the FBI under his or her control.
The day after the midterm elections, everyone emerged as both a winner and a loser. But here’s a thought: might the Democrats and Republicans work together to make both parties – and more importantly the country as a whole – winners?
In the wake of the midterms, our elected representatives in Congress and the president are faced with a choice.
They can give us two years of gridlock, House impeachment efforts against the president, and escalating rhetoric and fights from both directions.
Or, members of Congress and the president can call at least a partial truce and realize that it is in the best interest of Democrats, Republicans and the American people if they dedicate themselves to making progress for our country, rather than to pursuing partisan advantage 365 days of the year.
A Democrat like Rep. John Gottheimer, D-N.J., who is co-head of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, easily won re-election Tuesday in a solidly Republican district because he reached across party lines to find compromises.
This is what 80 percent of voters have said consistently they want their members of the House and Senate to do – replace conflicts and confrontation with compromise and cooperation.
The same in true when you ask voters about President Trump. In the last Harvard Caps/Harris Poll, the president had a 57 percent approval rating on the economy – but only 27 percent of the electorate likes him.
President Trump may be growing the economy and disrupting Washington, but he has a huge “personality deficit” that is dragging him down and costing him the across-the-board support that a president with such good economic numbers would usually get.
The strong economy got the president through the midterms, propping him up despite a 60 percent negative opinion poll rating for Republicans. But if the Democrats nominate a presidential candidate from the center in 2020 – someone without the kind of baggage that Hillary Clinton brought to the presidential race two years ago – the president would likely face a crushing defeat.
However, the Democrats have their vulnerabilities as well. Only 27 percent of the country is even liberal. And so the Democrats’ lurch to the left and obstructionism – known as “the resistance” – is also creating a disconnect with what the electorate wants. That prevented Democrats from winning the kind of victories Tuesday they had hoped for two years after the election of Trump.
Democrats also have a 60 percent negative rating and so they are a reluctant rather than enthusiastic choice of too many voters.
President Trump needs to realize that his rhetoric and style have to change if he wants to keep his job for another six years.
Democrats must abandon their plans for endless investigations and focus instead on making deals on infrastructure, criminal justice reform, health care and immigration.
Whoever changes direction and heads for the center over the extremes has an opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of 60 percent of the voters rather than earning the enmity of those voters.
Moving toward the center would be tough choices for both Democrats and Republicans given the dynamics in each party right now. But imagine if both President Trump and the Democrats did the right thing here – not only would they both have a better chance at winning elections, but they also would be making America a better, stronger country in the process.