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5 themes that defined the news out of D.C. in 2018

The victory of the #Resistance; Congress spins its wheels; and more.

Exhibit A of the suburban shift is Minnesota’s 3rd District, a swath of affluent communities that had traditionally leaned Republican, but got turned off by Trump’s brand of politics in 2016, and elected Democrat Dean Phillips.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

So much happened in 2018 in D.C. news that it’s an achievement to just recall most of it. Remember the government shutdown over DACA, which in fact took place in January, not several years ago? Or the U.S.-U.K.-France joint air strikes on Syria, which happened in April? When President Trump reportedly used a not-so-nice word to describe African countries? Do the words “H.R. McMaster” ring a bell?

You get the picture. Instead of trying to recap this wild and weird year in Washington, here’s a few top-line themes to chew on.

1. The Resistance won — this round, at least

November 6, 2018, was a day two years in the making: the people who were stunned, saddened, and outraged over Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016 turned around almost immediately and began building a movement to resist his presidency.

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Call it the #Resistance, the Tea Party of the left, whatever you like: there’s no question that this dogged opposition fueled the stinging rebuke of the president and his party that the 2018 midterm elections ultimately turned out to be. Democrats picked up 40 seats in the U.S. House — a win that was at the high end of the rosiest expectations — and took control of the chamber, heading into the next two years with the authority to investigate the Trump administration. (The Senate, where Democrats were largely on defense, remains in GOP hands, however.)

We saw the seeds of the House takeover planted last year with activism and energy from groups like Indivisible, and that carried over big-time into this year, with anti-Trump activists door-knocking, phone banking, and giving piles and piles of money toward the midterm fight. (Democratic House candidates collectively raised over $1 billion in 2018, thanks to big-donor money and the small-dollar online platform ActBlue.)

The Dems’ surge spanned from the urban cores of the U.S. — which were engines of Democratic votes that swung statewide races in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona, and elsewhere — to the suburbs, where a new Democratic coalition seems to have emerged.

Exhibit A of the suburban shift is Minnesota’s 3rd District, a swath of affluent communities that had traditionally leaned Republican, but got turned off by Trump’s brand of politics in 2016. It became fertile ground for Resistance groups like Indivisible, which worked to make life miserable for incumbent GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, and poured itself into the campaign of Democrat Dean Phillips. He ultimately trounced Paulsen, and dozens of other suburban-district Republicans were wiped out on election night, including Rep. Jason Lewis in Minnesota’s 2nd District.

In the cities, that anti-Trump energy found an outlet in progressive champions, and is propelling a new, diverse left-wing vanguard into Congress next year, embodied by people like Ilhan Omar, set to represent Minnesota’s 5th District, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upended an establishment Democrat in New York City to earn a seat in Congress.

All throughout 2018, there was plenty of hand-wringing — this is Democrats, after all — but progressives ultimately delivered the cathartic win that many on the left (and some to the right) had craved since November 10, 2016. The open question now if they can replicate that success for November 3, 2020.

2. A diminished Trump struggled to move his agenda

Porn stars, perp walks, palace intrigue — these are some of the things that defined the last year for our president and those in his orbit. After spending his first year in office notching a few big wins — mainly, passing sweeping tax cuts and easily confirming a U.S. Supreme Court judge — President Trump spent his sophomore year swamped in scandal and struggling to accomplish his agenda.

For starters: he has been unable to make any progress toward his signature campaign promise: building a big, beautiful border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Elsewhere, efforts to implement conservative health care policy have been on ice since the defeat of GOP legislation to repeal Obamacare fell apart last year.

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POTUS fared no better overseas: historic talks with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un could not have been more hyped by the White House, but they’ve failed to yield any signs that the nuclear-aspiring rogue state has hemmed its military ambitions. (In fact, they may be building on them.) The president’s tariff-heavy approach to trade sent markets reeling and damaged U.S. industries like agriculture, but it’s not clear yet if his strategy will pave the way for a better bilateral trade agreement with China. Trump’s supporters in Minnesota farm country apparently have a deep well of patience for the trade war, but it’s not unlimited.

Meanwhile, you can probably count the president’s most significant achievements in 2018 on one hand: his second SCOTUS nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, was narrowly confirmed after what was the most acrimonious Supreme Court fight in modern history. His administration reached deals with Canada and Mexico on a new trilateral trade agreement to replace NAFTA, a major trade and foreign policy goal. His administration continued on the regulation-cutting, business-friendly agenda it began last year, and a watered-down version of its beleaguered “travel ban” survived a few court challenges, emerging mostly intact.

Good news for the administration had a short shelf life this year: seemingly every week produced a revelation or scandal — generated by Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia, federal prosecutors’ probe into Michael Cohen’s pay-offs of Trump paramours during the campaign, or press investigations into questionable administration officials — that threw the White House off message and on the defensive. (It’s been nearly impossible to keep track of it all — though Axios gave the Mueller timeline a try, USA Today mapped out the hush-payments business.)

Through it all, the president’s approval ratings continue to be historically low as he heads into his re-election bid — widely considered to be his main focus over the next two years, not anything policy-oriented — but his support among core supporters could be stronger than it ever has been.

3. Congress ran on empty in 2018

After a busy 2017 — which saw lawmakers pass a sweeping tax cut into law and come within a vote of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act — this year, Congress was mostly content to abandon big legislative efforts and focus on what it does best these days: fight a lot, kick the can down the road, and quietly confirm scores of conservative judges to the federal bench. (Eighty-five of them over the last two years, to be exact.)

Capitol Hill book-ended the year with two government shutdowns over disagreements on immigration policy. In January, the government briefly shut down over the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which Democrats pushed to protect after Trump terminated the program for undocumented young immigrants in 2017. Democrats ultimately backed out of the shutdown when the GOP promised a fair debate and vote on immigration bills — none of which ultimately earned enough support to pass.

Then, in December, Trump insisted on $5 billion in funds for his border wall as part of a year-end spending package. Democrats, days away from control of the House, didn’t budge, and the government shrugged toward a Christmas shutdown over the wall that even some Republicans didn’t want. It was a fitting coda to a year that saw Congress’ operational dysfunction (so many government funding cliffs!) get wrapped up with its policy dysfunction — and all that sound and fury resulted in exactly nothing for anyone to like on immigration.

Even on issues where there was broad bipartisan agreement, congressional leaders managed to find ways to shut down productive legislating. Lots of Democrats and Republicans favored shoring up the integrity of U.S. elections through a slate of election security and transparency bills, some of which were championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, but the 2018 election came and went without so much as a committee vote on these bills in Congress.

Even the handful of successes on Capitol Hill in 2018 were marred by political bickering: take the Farm Bill, the huge, twice-a-decade food and agriculture bill that has historically been a bipartisan point of cooperation. This spring, it got defeated on the House floor (a rare embarrassment) and stalled for months over GOP demands to add new work requirements to the food stamp program before finally passing in December, more than two months after the previous Farm Bill expired.

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Don’t think that Congress didn’t work together at least some of the time: Democrats and Republicans found a great opportunity to join hands and do something everyone loves: increase government spending (Democrats got social programs; the GOP got the military) by approving a deficit-fueling budget deal in February that lifted sequester-era caps on spending. In another feel-good moment, congressmen also reached across the aisle to approve legislation to loosen restrictions on the country’s biggest banks.

But some other points of congressional cooperation could prove meaningful in 2019 and beyond. In December, Congress unexpectedly approved the most significant reform to the criminal justice system in a generation, undoing punitive sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. The Senate took an unprecedented, bipartisan step to rebuke U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen, after years of Saudi influence in D.C. blocked such moves. Also, congressional watchdogs in both parties also took Silicon Valley brass to task for the (various, multiplying) bad things that happened on their watch recently, and Big Tech is in lower esteem than ever on all corners of the Hill.

4. Everything became the culture war

When the book is written about politics in 2018, it might mention a campaign ad that a GOP super PAC ran in the race for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District. The ad attacked DFL candidate Dan Feehan not over health care, or tax policy, or any other issue — but instead accused him of being unpatriotic for supporting athletes who kneel during the national anthem, and linked him to the liberal Jewish financier-activist George Soros and violent, far-left “antifa” demonstrators.

If you did the polling, it’d probably show that George Soros and anthem protests aren’t leading concerns in the 1st, Minnesota’s farm (and Mayo Clinic) country. The fact that they made it into an ad there is just one example of how culture war politics, which defined the national political mood in 2018, became inescapable everywhere, from social media to TV ads to Congress’ biggest debates.

The strategy of leaning on controversial issues and topics that center on identity, emotion, and morality isn’t a new one, of course, but there’s never been a president who embraces it as fully as Trump, who has focused on inflaming cultural divisions to please his supporters, who see him as a crusader against the evils of liberal values like political correctness.

This election year saw those tactics trickle down to, well, everyone. Case and point: the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. When the sexual assault allegations against the judge broke, Trump and his supporters defended Kavanaugh like one of their own — indeed, the president drew parallels to his own sexual assault allegations in defending his nominee — as if it weren’t just a spot on the high court at stake, but the very ideas of innocence, truth, and male integrity, sacred things all under assault from a liberal mob gone off the rails.

That was ultimately the lens through which Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, cast her decisive vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation — and the framing Republicans used on the midterm campaign trail, as they made Kavanaugh a rallying cry in key races in order to energize the president’s supporters.

The culture war extended to immigration, where D.C. wrestled with the “caravan,” the Wall, and the travel ban in emotional, personal debates, to voting rights, after reports of minority voter suppression in some states, to law enforcement and the justice system. Trump himself said the 2018 midterms would be about “Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” and a lot of Republican campaigns echoed those themes.

That all put politics in the starkest frames possible, making the questions of who belongs, who should have a voice, and who matters in America at the center of almost every political issue. Ahead of what should be a heated, pressure-filled 2020 election, that’s unlikely to change.

5. 2020 battle lines formed, and Minnesota got a (maybe) top contender

A big thing that happened in 2018 was the start of the 2020 election. You read that correctly: The ink barely dried on this year’s midterm election results before candidates began making moves for the next campaign, whether for the White House or for Congress.

Really, though, the jockeying for the all-important presidential race started even before voters went to the polls for this year’s election. Facing what looks like a historically packed and politically unprecedented Democratic primary, the emerging field of some two dozen aspirants made moves all year to set up White House bids.

Minnesota’s own Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a possible candidate, took some time off from her own re-election campaign to stump for Democrats down in neighboring Iowa (nothing important happening there on February 3, 2020!) and to appear on Stephen Colbert’s show on the eve of the midterms to remind the good people to vote. After her landslide win on election night, Klobuchar dropped some pretense and sounded her least ambiguous notes yet about a presidential run: “I’m considering it.”

Similar things could be said for any number of possible candidates, from the big names (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden) to the new sensations (Beto O’Rourke) to the, who are you, again? (John Hickenlooper, Eric Swalwell) All spent chunks of time in 2018 in early primary states, or cultivating possible donors and campaign staff.

Democrats and the political media-world geared up too, working through much of 2018 to read the tea leaves — from polls to stump speeches and cable news hits — for would-be candidates’ intentions and, just as importantly, for voters’ attitudes to get some idea of what they possibly want.

The wide-open nature of the Democratic primary, the prospect of taking on Trump, and the lingering internal divisions from 2016 appeared to spark unusually early public and private soul-searching from Democrats, who spent the year wrestling with some big, election-defining questions: what kind of person should be the nominee? Is the party still split along Hillary-Bernie lines, or have new fault lines emerged? Is it worth appealing to Trump voters at all, or do Democrats need to focus on energizing their core supporters? Can a candidate do both of those things?

Democrats head into 2020 with a pretty advanced discussion of an election that’s two years away — but absolutely no idea about what will happen next.