Opinion: Hoping for a midterm split decision

Since the election of Donald Trump, the conservatives who opposed him in 2016 have increasingly divided into distinct camps — one group continuing to criticize him but still backing the institutional GOP, and the other following their anti-Trumpism into root-and-branch opposition to his party. This division extends to midterm attitudes: Some NeverTrumpers will cheer for every Republican defeat, while others pull for GOP victories in exactly the way they would have in 2010 or 2014.

Let me suggest a third option. If you are a conservative who is moderately happy with some of Trump’s policy steps, fearful of liberalism in full power, but also fearful of Trump untrammeled and triumphant, the sensible thing to root for — and vote for — is the outcome that appears most likely at the moment: A Republican majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

The best argument for conservative support for Donald Trump was always defensive: Elect him and you prevent the installation of a long-term liberal majority on the Supreme Court, and perhaps chasten the Democratic Party and arrest its leftward march.

For that argument to persuade, you had to trust the institutional Republican Party’s promise to contain Trump’s authoritarian instincts and restrain his follies. You also had to downplay the long-term damage, to conservatism and the body politic, of putting someone with such poisonous rhetorical habits in the bully pulpit.

I wasn’t persuaded. But so far Trump has been more constrained and less destructive than I expected — his foreign policy less destabilizing (so far) than either of his predecessors, his cruelest policy instincts walked back under pressure, the country more prosperous, his appointments more responsible and a large-scale investigation into his possible crimes proceeding, beset by Trumpian insults but otherwise mostly unimpeded by the White House.

To the extent that any Republicans deserve credit for this constraint, though, they are mostly elected Republicans in the Senate. The House is more pure, uncut MAGA, more reflexive in its defense of a president whose behavior is often indefensible, more poisoned by the worst Trumpist tendencies (witness the steady migration of the Iowa congressman Steve King toward an overt white nationalism) and more inclined to allow Trump a free hand should he seek to make his actual presidency exactly like his Twitter feed.

So a Democratic House would supply a much more effective check on that temptation, along with more vigorous scrutiny of corruption in the White House, about which congressional Republicans have been studiously incurious. And it would offer that check without jeopardizing any potential conservative legislative achievements — because, let's be frank, the congressional GOP isn't going to do anything serious with its power if it gets re-elected except confirm judges.

At the same time, for the genuinely populist sort of conservative (that is, the best kind), having a Democratic House might force Trump himself back toward the economic populism of his campaign, which he mostly abandoned but has suddenly remembered in the last days before the midterms, talking up a phantom middle-class tax cut and proposing an “America First” approach to drug pricing.

So giving up the House restrains and redirects Trump at relatively little cost, and perhaps even some policy advantage. Keeping the Senate Republican in this cycle, on the other hand, also provides a hedge against a future where the Democratic Party returns to power flush with ideological zeal, committed to its own forms of norm-busting, and eager for a measure of revenge.

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