Will the Democrats Take Back the House? (Interview with Professor Gregory Wawro)

Professor Gregory Wawro specializes in American politics and political methodology at Columbia. In light of the upcoming midterm elections this November, CPR editor Dimitrius Keeler decided to sit down with Professor Wawro to discuss his thoughts on the Trump administration, the Mueller investigation, and the recent upheavals in the Republican Party, as well as the future political composition of Congress. 

CPR: After over a year under the Trump administration, what are your general impressions of his presidency thus far? And how would you characterize his relationship with Congress?

GW: Wow, where do I even start? I think this administration has been one of the most unusual we’ve seen in American history. From the very beginning, the way the administration has been run, the issues it’s faced, the problems it’s created—there’s really nothing like it in American history. You can look back at other scandal-plagued administrations but in the modern period, there’s nothing that compares to this. You can see that the administration has largely followed the path that the campaign has set out before it. It’s  chaotic and unorthodox, and does things that most political actors would never do. 

With respect to the administration’s relationship with Congress, I think it’s been pretty strange. I’m mostly surprised at the degree to which members of Congress have deferred to Trump. I think this reflects that the congressional leaders appreciate how difficult it is to actually win the presidency. After eight years of Obama, the outlook of Republican leaders in Congress has changed. The fact that they controlled the House, Senate, and Executive made them think, ‘now we can accomplish all these things that weren’t possible when Obama was in office, but to do so we have to follow in line behind the person who actually won.’ This view helps explain why many have remained relatively loyal. But given the political liability that Trump poses, I’ve been surprised at the extent to which they’ve stuck by him. My sense was that as it became clear that his approval ratings were going to remain extremely low, and that he was going to do eratic things, make controversial statements, change positions on policy, and leave members of Congress to twist in the wind, that they would really start to distance themselves from him. That hasn’t really happened which I find surprising. 

Just look at the upcoming elections- I mean the writing is on the wall that the Democrats will take back the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms. The odds are much longer in the Senate, but it’s not out of the question. It’s surprising that Republicans have not done more to try and insulate themselves from what I think will be a tsunami, not just a wave, but a tsunami that will really damage Republicans’ opportunities to enact their agenda. 

CPR: Short of the tax bill, we have seen few bills passed by Congress. How much do you think this lack of productivity will hurt Republicans during this election cycle? 

GW: It may hurt them a fair amount, though there is not enough social science knowledge on the relationship between electoral success and productivity. A lot of political scientists think the two are related, the thinking being that you have to run on something of a record, but I’m less convinced of this than others. I think you can be just as effective at winning elections by running against things. The 2010 and 2006 midterms are good examples of this. That said, the Republicans’ inability to deliver on campaign promises like repealing Obamacare is a problem. You know, tax reform is the one thing they have been productive on but I’ve been reading accounts that show that it’s likely to be more of a liability for them this election. Voters don’t seem all that impressed with it. It may help them with donors. By every indication, wealthy individuals will do better under the new tax regime, and perhaps they will be willing to spend some of the additional wealth they’ll have by donating to Republican candidates. But overall, you know the ordinary voter doesn’t really know much about what Congress does or what it has or hasn’t achieved. The people who are more knowledgeable about this thing, they’ll like the tax cuts if they’re Republican constituents, but at the same time they’re not going to be happy about all the other promises on which the Republicans have not been able to deliver. 

To compensate for this lack of productivity, I think what we’re likely to see is that the Republicans’ strategy will trend more towards making the case that they need the voters’ support or else the Democrats will come in and reverse a lot of what Trump has been able to do through unilateral actions, like his judicial appointments and executive orders. But overall I don’t think lack of productivity will be a prevailing factor in this election. Scandals will be more influential, just because it’s easier for people to grasp and it’s easier to cast a vote against things than for them.

CPR: Speaking of unilateral action, many people have been highly critical of Trump’s use of the executive order thus far, saying he’s overstepping his authority and so on. What have been your impressions on the matter?

GW: Well I think it’s entirely within his power to do these kinds of actions and it demonstrates a degree of hypocrisy between the parties. You know, your position on executive orders largely depends on whether your party controls the presidency or not. When Obama was using a lot of executive orders, Republicans were up in arms and now that they control the White House, they’re fine with Trump’s unilateral actions. I don’t think what Trump is doing here is that far out of the ordinary. Even though his party controls both houses, they’re still struggling to get things passed, so naturally they’ll turn to the executive action. 

I think what really separates the Trump administration in this area is simply that they’ve executed these executive orders poorly. The travel ban was clearly suspect, as indicated by the courts. What they’re doing isn’t that out of the ordinary, but how they are is. This raises questions about competence, reflected in the responses to [the Trump administration’s] actions, whether it’s public outrage or judges simply saying ‘what you’re attempting is illegal.’

CPR: You mentioned how you think the scandals of the Trump administration will be a strong determinant of this upcoming election- to what extent do you think the Mueller investigation will become an major issue for the administration?

GW: I think this is a pretty big deal. Relative to other investigations like this, I think the Mueller investigation has already produced a lot more than what we’ve seen in comparable investigations. Take the Ken Starr investigation during the Clinton administration. That took years for them to find anything, and in the end what they did find wasn’t even what they were looking for in the first place. Starr’s investigation was sprawling, and while they did unearth some misdeeds of Clinton’s, they found nothing on the original targets in the Whitewater case. 

Mueller, on the other hand, has already seemed to find transgressions that are centrally related to the core focus of the investigation. The indictments he’s served and the guilty pleas he’s secured are really quite significant. It certainly gives the impression that there’s too much smoke for there not to also be fire. Even so, at the end of the day the campaign might be cleared, but the way the administration has responded makes it seem like there’s a lot more left to be uncovered.

I don’t think we should speculate too much about the eventual outcome of the investigation, but I think it’s important to note that at this point it is incorrect to say there is no collusion simply because Mueller hasn’t found it yet. It’s still very early, it’s a complex investigation with lots of players, and the stakes are very high. I don’t think Mueller will issue a report until he’s absolutely sure. 

Though I must say, I think the raid on Cohen’s offices is a truly stunning development in this investigation. Historically, it really puts us in same kind of situation as what transpired during the investigation of the Nixon administration. I mean, to be able to do something like that, the people you’d have to convince that such an action would hold up under legal scrutiny and to secure those warrants, they would have to have really compelling evidence of crimes committed. It’s quite alarming. 

CPR: Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but in the event that the investigation does conclude that there was in fact collusion, what could the fall out look like?

GW: Well, I agree with most legal scholars that the President can’t be indicted. I think there could be something like censure, but the ultimate question is ‘does this lead to impeachment?’. And then will that lead to conviction in the senate? If there’s evidence that members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russians but the President was not involved, or they can’t find evidence that he was, then I think ultimately this will be decided in the court of the elections. We’ll see what else comes out between now and the midterms, but my sense is that Republicans will pay dearly like they did in 1974 election when the Nixon investigation was ramping up. If there’s evidence that Trump was involved, or that the President has been compromised by past actions, they figure out that the russian intelligence has compromising material on him or something, then I think that would inevitably lead to impeachment. It’s really hard to see conviction in the Senate, unless there’s this overwhelming evidence where the only way to save the Republican party would be to exercise Trump. In this scenario, I think we’re more likely to see resignation than anything. Trump is no quitter but he’s someone who knows when to cut his loses and would likely prefer that option to the alternative proceedings. 

CPR: I know you’re predicting a tsunami, not just a wave, in favor of the Democrats, but they face a tough map in the Senate. How do you see their odds right now? 

GW: You know, I haven’t sat down and gone race by race yet to do all the math, but the political geography is just really unfavorable to Democrats. That said, they won in Alabama, and they’ve been winning these special elections. To win in the Pennsylvania 18th district is pretty striking, and it suggests that they can win in deep red territory. I can’t give you an exact figure, but I still think it’s unlikely that the Democrats recapture the Senate, though their chances have definitely improved. 

There’s still a lot of time for us to get a better sense of these races and lots can change between now and November. Suppose Trump negotiates a deal with North Korea, that could have an impact. It won’t reverse a giant wave but it could set the tide some—I guess I’m mixing metaphors at this point! But that said, you can point to plenty of examples of giant foreign policy accomplishments that didn’t really end up helping the President much. The best example here is that of George H.W. Bush. The First Gulf War was viewed as a huge success and he recorded some of the highest approval ratings ever, but subsequently he lost his reelection bid. The public had more or less forgotten about it by the time the 1992 election rolled around. 

CPR: I’ve seen some early ads and messaging coming out of the RNC that seems like they’re trying to make this race about none other than Nancy Pelosi—what do you make of this strategy? If you were the Republican National Committee, how would you approach this election? 

GW: Ha that’s a tough question! The RNC has a problem and it’s really about this notion of tribalism, where Republican voters have fractured into two distinct camps. The test for Republican voters has become “do you support Trump or not?” There are these ardent Trump supporters, who are not going to vote for just any Republican, and then you also have more moderate supporters who are unhappy with the way things have been going thus far. If it’s that tribal and the party is split into a Trump wing and an establishment wing, the question is how to negotiate that in the upcoming elections? I don’t know to what extent this is really true: this view is based primarily on journalistic reporting about what’s going on in the electorate, but in the past a party’s strategy in this situation would be to simply distance themselves from the President. And that strategy has worked in the past. But it seems like there’s a different dynamic here created by Trump’s ascendancy in the Republican party. Trumpism has become to define a good deal of what the Republican party is about. The party has experienced this schism for a while now, between the more extreme bloc and the more moderate or establishment bloc, but Trump seems to only have exacerbated that. As a result, it’s really hard to devise a strategy to adequately navigate this divide. One possibility might be for candidates to simply avoid talking about the president, but even that could backfire for supporters who want to see him at their rallies and have him at the forefront of the race. Tou mentioned the Nancy Pelosi ads and it’s starting to seem like that’s the only thing they can do at this point. An age old strategy is tieing candidates to unpopular national figures. They don’t have Obama anymore but they still have her. They tried to make the race in the Pennsylvania 18th about Pelosi and, by the measure of who won the election, they failed. It’s also interesting to note that the ads you mentioned were not run by the Republican candidate, but by the national party. I doubt they’ll realize much more success if this Pelosi line is a broader strategy that they’re going to pursue in the national campaign.

CPR: The RNC has been rocked by several scandals lately, including the resignations of Michael Cohen and Elliott Broidy. Do you anticipate this having any impact on their abilities this election? 

GW: It’s never good to lose people, but from what I’ve seen from Michael Cohen, I don’t have a lot of faith that he was going to be a great leader anyways for the RNC. I don’t know much about what Broidy was contributing to their efforts. Having your organization plagued by scandal can have negative effects on donor confidence, and can make it challenging to execute some of the organization’s responsibilities with respect to voter mobilization, etc.,but the bigger issue is the significant momentum on Democrats’ side. It’s more about the overall unhappiness at the current state of affairs, so I don’t think the issues within the RNC will be a prevailing factor here. 

CPR: A recent Quinnipiac poll has Beto O’Rourke trailing Cruz by only 3%, do you think he has a decent a shot at unseating Cruz?

GW: I think he’s got a shot, but I must say polls like this really should be taken with a grain of salt. People really aren’t paying attention to the election at this point, and most won’t start tuning in until after Labor Day. I think it would be really hard to lose someone as senior as Cruz, but you have to look at trends. If trends keep going against Cruz in the coming months, then that’s informative, but a single poll taken at a time when people aren’t paying attention isn’t a good indicator. It’s definitely still too premature to call it a toss up, but we need to pay attention. 

CPR: What do you make of Paul Ryan’s retirement? 

GW: This is a pretty major event. On the one hand, I appreciate Ryan being forthright rather than going through a campaign that his heart is not in. But at the same time it’s hugely deflating for the Republican party. Here is one of your top leaders, top fundraisers, one of the people best positioned to raise money and to motivate constituents, and he’s basically saying “I’m done with this”. He claims he’s going to campaign just as hard but it’s’ going to be a lot more difficult when he can’t present to donors as the leader of the institution. All of his promises become less credible because he is no longer in a position to make these decisions. This really is a big deal. 

CPR: Many people might not be very familiar with Kevin McCarthy, if he does in fact secede Ryan, what can we expect of his leadership?

GW: That’s a good question. I think [we can expect] more of the same to be honest. There’s basically a line of succession in the House when it comes to leadership, and he’s been part of the current inner circle for a while now. I don’t think we’ll see much change. I think the bigger question - and this goes back to how Ryan’s decision makes it difficult or Republicans- is the speakership race could end being wide open actually. Suppose Republicans end up holding a reduced majority. The election for speaker takes place in the House at large and the way a party controls the speakership is by getting pretty much everyone in their party to vote for one candidate. If the Tea Party wing enters a candidate who steals a portion of the votes, that could actually lead to a democratic becoming speaker despite still being in the minority. Even though McCarthy is the heir apparent, I don’t think they can make any promises that he’ll be the leader or come out on top in an election. The dynamics are so crazy right now, all bets are off. 

CPR: Nancy Pelosi remains one of the most divisive figures in the country —if the Democrats take the house can we expect her to return as Speaker or is it time for someone new to take over? 

GW: That’s a tough question. I think Nancy Pelosi has taken a lot of heat- some deserved- but overall I think she’s been a very effective leader for Democrats. She’s done what she needs to to make the party successful. Anyone who the Democrats would put forward would be controversial. Steny Hoyer would presumably be next in line, but I don’t think he would be above the type of controversy Pelosi seems to attract. He certainly wouldn’t embody a younger leadership that some are calling for. What the Democrats can do is potentially bring younger, more ideological diversity within the leadership itself. But having Pelosi step aside would not be the best move for them, especially considering her ability to fundraise. Also it’s worth noting that in today’s climate, it really is something special that the only female speaker in history has been a Democrat. That’s inspiring to a lot of folks. You wonder to what extent large-tent Democrats and their commitment to diversity would be hindered by turning on her.