1. 2020: More of the same or next-level craziness?
Despite a series of near-cataclysmic political events throughout 2019 – from the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to President Donald Trump’s impeachment – the overall political environment remained largely stable during the year.
For example, at the beginning of 2019, 55 percent of voters said the country was on the wrong track; at the end of the year, that number stood at 56 percent, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of polls tracking voters’ sentiment about the direction of the country. Similarly, Trump’s job rating of 44 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval at the end of 2019 largely mirrored his numbers at the beginning of the year.
What about 2020? Are we headed for more of the same? Or will the combination of a Senate impeachment trial at the beginning of the year and the presidential election at year’s end serve as bookends to a political supernova in 2020?
Despite wild daily gyrations – such as inflammatory tweets from the White House and hair-on-fire news conferences on Capitol Hill – the political environment is likely to remain stable throughout the year. Trump’s impeachment and the Democratic presidential primaries are fueling hypertribalism, which is cementing current benchmark indicators, such as right track/wrong track and presidential job approval, within narrow ranges. Because of this hyperpartisanship, there’s simply no maneuverability among voters to operate outside these ranges.
However, as the U.S. military attack last week on Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani reminded, external events have the potential to change the domestic political dynamic in an instant. Before the attack, foreign policy was barely registering – 1.3 percent – as an important issue among Democratic primary voters, according to FiveThiryEight/Ipsos polling. Since the attack, Democratic presidential candidates have sharply criticized Trump over the move while trying to burnish their own foreign policy credentials, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi says House will vote this week on a war powers resolution to limit the president’s military actions against Iran.
2. You think Congress is partisan? What about us?
While partisanship has always existed on Capitol Hill – lawmaker-on-lawmaker physical violence, including murder, stabbings and several canings, were commonplace in the early 19th century – today’s hyperpartisanship is afflicting not only lawmakers but also voters.
“Three years ago, Pew Research Center found that the 2016 presidential campaign was ‘unfolding against a backdrop of intense partisan division and animosity,’” according to a Pew study on partisanship, published in October 2019. “Today, the level of division and animosity – including negative sentiments among partisans toward the members of the opposing party – has only deepened.”
For example, although more than 75 percent of Republicans and Democrats told Pew they were concerned about partisan divisions, nearly half said the other party has no or almost no good ideas, and more than half said the other party doesn’t share their values. A majority of Republicans said Democrats are “more unpatriotic” than other Americans, while nearly half of Democrats said Republicans are “more immoral” than other Americans.
If voters express this level of division and animosity toward members of the opposing party, it’s no wonder partisanship in Congress has reached toxic levels.
3. Partisanship, more than impeachment, will stall key legislation in Congress
Election-year partisanship is likely to further dampen prospects for fresh political consensus on legislative initiatives this year, with one exception. In the 2019 year-end funding agreement, Congress did create a May 22 inflection point. That’s when funding for certain federal healthcare programs will expire, forcing lawmakers to vote to reauthorize those policies.
Congressional leaders hope to leverage that deadline to force action on legislation addressing prescription drug prices or surprise medical billing. But the two parties remain so far apart, at least on the drug pricing issue, that bipartisan consensus seems unlikely, particularly in what would then be the middle of the presidential election.
Policy consensus on any significant legislation is particularly challenging in an environment where the two parties’ political incentives are pointing toward partisanship. Still, smart stakeholders aren’t abandoning or disengaging from Congress or the Trump administration in 2020. From relationship-building with lawmakers to pre-positioning legislation for quick action later in the year or even 2021, now is exactly the time to be engaging with policymakers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
4. Moderate House Dems want bipartisan accomplishments but won’t break with Pelosi
Senate Democrats have only two incumbents who face any kind of political jeopardy in 2020: Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama and Gary Peters of Michigan. Other senators facing reelection are in solid Democratic states and are unlikely to be vulnerable to political pressure to advance bipartisan legislation.
That dynamic is different in the House, where 18 Democratic seats are toss-ups and another 17 seats are rated as only “lean Democratic,” according to the latest Cook Political Report House race ratings.
Still, these vulnerable Democrats can point to the December House votes on the trade agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada and the partisan legislation to address prescription drug prices as recent examples of policies important to swing voters. Vulnerable House Democrats are always going to pressure Pelosi to advance more moderate legislation, or at least to take sandpaper to its progressive rough edges. But moderate House Democrats aren’t going to break away to form a governing coalition with Republicans – mostly because Pelosi won’t let it happen and because House rules make such opportunities rare.
5. How do GOP members of Congress campaign with Trump on the ballot?
For congressional candidates running for reelection in a presidential campaign year, it’s always difficult to run your own campaign on your own issues. The two parties’ presidential candidates dominate news coverage and mostly set the political agenda. Plus, when an incumbent president is seeking reelection, the election often turns on voters’ perceptions of that incumbent.
This will be especially true in 2020 as Trump seeks reelection. Like the sun, his political star power blots out attention for down-ballot candidates and forces those candidates to react to his agenda rather than run on their own. That means Republican congressional candidates will mostly rise and fall with Trump.
In the early months of 2020, Republican congressional incumbents will be hyperfocused on their base and ensuring their campaigns are aligned with Trump politically. As primary filing deadlines pass, these incumbent GOP lawmakers will have more room to separate themselves from the White House but likely won’t unless pressed to do so.
The political calculus for Senate Republicans is different because statewide general elections require support from the opposing party’s voters – particularly in states where GOP Senate incumbents are vulnerable in 2020, such as in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina.
Still, there are enough primary-voting Republicans in those states to force incumbents to balance the competing – and often contradictory – interests of primary and general election voters. For example, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last year announcing he was breaking with Trump and voting to disapprove of the president redirecting congressionally approved funding for the border wall. Days later, Tillis reversed course after pressure from the White House – and numerous threats of potential primary election challenges – and Trump later endorsed Tillis’ reelection.