Unlike presidential elections, it is usually quite easy to predict who will win the mid-terms. Two years ago I was one of a tiny minority who did not regard Hillary Clinton as either very likely or virtually certain to be the next president of the United States. I compared the race to that year’s baseball World Series, which had just been ever-so-narrowly won by the underdogs, the Chicago Cubs.
The outsider, Donald Trump, could beat the favourite, I argued, if there was “a differential in turnout between his supporters and hers in the battleground states, comparable to the age- and ethnicity-based differentials in the UK referendum”. And that was exactly what happened.
Today, with just two days left before polling day, it feels different. This time last week, the World Series was all but over because my team, the Boston Red Sox, were crushing the LA Dodgers — our pitchers so ruthless that in the fifth and final game the LA hitters scarcely connected with the ball.
For Red Sox, read Democrats. Even the most committed Republicans I know accept there is only a remote chance they will keep control of the House of Representatives. The consolation is that the Democrats are almost equally unlikely to win the Senate.
Why are mid-term elections so predictable? The answer is that — despite the role of local issues and candidates — they are in large measure referendums on the president’s performance and, as such, perfect opportunities for Americans to display their characteristic fickleness. Having elected someone president,voters are collectively ready to punch him on the nose after just 24 months. The president’s party has lost House seats in every mid-term election since 1946, with just two exceptions: 1998 and 2002.
In the nine elections when the president’s approval rating was below 50%, his party lost an average of 37 seats. Even in the nine mid-terms when the president’s approval rating was above 50%, his party still lost an average of 14 seats. The only two presidents who saw their party gain seats — Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W Bush in 2002 — were exceptionally popular at the time.
So you think President Trump is exceptionally unpopular? Stop watching CNN. Actually, his current 43% approval rating lands him squarely in the middle of the league table. He’s less popular than Johnson in 1966, Carter in 1978, Clinton in 1994, and Obama in 2010 and 2014. But Trump is more popular than Truman in 1946 and 1950, Reagan in 1982 — amazing, isn’t it? — and Bush in 2006.
On Tuesday, Democrats need to win 23 seats to retake the House. Looking solely at Trump’s approval rating, you would expect them to win up to 41, but allowances need to be made for the Republicans’ recent gerrymandering of district boundaries, which should help them hang on to about five seats that would otherwise flip.
Another way to read the tea leaves is to look at the popularity of the two parties themselves, as revealed by polls asking if voters would prefer a generic Republican or a generic Democrat to represent them. Since 1950, a victorious party has never trailed by more than 4.5 percentage points in the week of a mid-term election. Republicans are currently behind by 8.5 points.
Democrats also lead in fundraising, by roughly $1bn (£770m) to $700m. The average Republican challenger to an incumbent in 2010 — the year the Republicans gave Obama his famous “shellacking”— had double the campaign donations of the average Democratic challenger. This year, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, Democratic challengers have seven times more money than Republican ones.
For further evidence that Republicans have a problem, look at this year’s special elections (by-elections in British English), where Democratic candidates have achieved an average 15-point swing. To their dismay, Republicans have found that last year’s tax cuts are a vote-loser. Their hasty shift from economic issues to cultural issues — from “Yet more tax cuts!” to “The caravan is coming!” — has not sufficed to stem the blue tide.
So why is the Senate not going the same way as the House? The answer is that the Democrats are having to defend 26 of their seats — 10 in states won by Trump in 2016 — while the Republicans have only nine seats in play, making it the most skewed contest since 1938. True, incumbent senators from the opposition party tend to win re-election. But in North Dakota and Missouri, the Democratic incumbents Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill are trailing Republican challengers. Bill Nelson is up against it in Florida. So is Joe Donnelly in Indiana. To win control, the Democrats must hang on to all their existing seats and win two more. Watch Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee; maybe also Texas, where Ted Cruz is battling the charismatic Beto O’Rourke. But don’t be surprised to see Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, still in charge when it’s all over.
If Democrats thought their attempt to derail the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice would pay dividends in November, they could not have been more wrong. The hearings at which Kavanaugh was confronted by his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, backfired as men — and many women — all over the American heartland sided with Kavanaugh.
For a time, I thought the Kavanaugh effect might be sufficient to save the Republicans in the House, too. Anger over the way the Democrats had behaved, scepticism about Ford’s somewhat hazy recollections and sympathy with Kavanaugh’s indignation — this was a powerful cocktail that galvanised my Trump-supporting friends. However, research on social media trends by my former student Gil Highet put paid to this idea. It turns out that, while the Kavanaugh hearings did fire up the Republican base, it fired up their opponents even more in the most hotly contested districts.
So what can we expect if the Democrats do win the House? Of course, there may be no stopping the polarisation. With no meaningful changes to the way Facebook, Google and Twitter operate, American voters are just as exposed as they were two years ago to a barrage of fake news, extreme views and targeted ads. The difference is that the Democrats have learnt their lesson and are now unabashedly waging the info war — big data, bots and all. If elected, “woke” progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fully intend to bring the #Resistance and #MeToo to Washington. Trump’s impeachment will be top of their agenda.
Yet there is another scenario. Unless they do much better than expected, the left will not be able to stop the veteran California Democrat Nancy Pelosi being re-elected as Speaker of the House. She loathes Trump, no doubt. On the other hand, the more Trump talks about imposing tariffs on China or passing an infrastructure bill, the more like an old Democrat he sounds. Moreover, Pelosi has been around long enough to remember what impeachment did for Bill Clinton: his approval rating — already high at the time of the November 1998 mid-terms — rose to 73% the week he was impeached.
Mid-terms may be more predictable than most things in politics. Predicting what comes after Tuesday is a whole lot harder.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Tom Wolfe couldn’t have written it better. According to her testimony before the Senate judicial committee on Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford’s memory of being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh in 1982 was shared and recorded for the first time in 2012 — 30 years after the event — because she wanted her remodelled house to have two front doors. As her husband disagreed with this unconventional suggestion, the couple sought counselling. It was during the counselling that she described the assault, although Kavanaugh was not named in the therapist’s notes.
Six years later, when Kavanaugh’s name was said to be on the shortlist for the Supreme Court, she confided her story to The Washington Post and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and then to Senator Dianne Feinstein. Six weeks after receiving a letter from Ford, Feinstein revealed its existence to other members of the committee. By some mysterious process, Ford’s name and her allegation then appeared in the press.
Finally on Thursday, after much negotiation, it happened: Ford v Kavanaugh — the personification of the schism at the heart of American life today. Not so much woman v man as Democrat v Republican.
It is true that in the past week other accusations of sexual misconduct have been levelled at Kavanaugh. But none of these stories, including Ford’s, would stand up in a court of law because there is not a shred of evidence to corroborate the recollections of those telling them.
Having watched Ford testify, I have little doubt she believes what she said is true. But as a historian who has spent many long hours interviewing people about past events, including highly personal matters, I do not regard that as good enough to destroy the reputation of a distinguished judge.
Human memory is, generally, bad at history. Were I writing Brett Kavanaugh’s biography I could not possibly depict him, on the basis of uncorroborated testimony provided long after the fact, as a man who attempted rape in his youth and lied about it later. His memory is also unlikely to be perfect. But his story — that as a young man he glugged beer and had the usual Catholic hang-ups about sex — is more plausible.
“Maybe so,” comes the response, “but the Republicans used devious delaying tactics to keep Merrick Garland off the Supreme Court.” The difference is that Garland’s reputation was not destroyed in the process.
The #MeToo movement is revolutionary feminism. Like all revolutionary movements, it favours summary justice. Since April 2017 more than 200 prominent men have been publicly accused of a sexual misdemeanour, ranging from rape to inappropriate language. A few seem likely to have committed crimes and are being prosecuted accordingly — notably the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who denies all allegations of non-consensual sex. But #MeToo seems to have elided rape, assault, clumsy passes and banter into a single, catch-all crime. Reputations have been destroyed and careers ended. “I believe her” are the fateful words that, if uttered by enough people, perform the roles of judge and jury.
Sexual harassment is bad, no question. Yet a much bigger threat to women’s rights is largely ignored by western feminists. As my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, likes to point out, verse 2:282 of the Koran states that a woman’s testimony is worth only half of a man’s testimony in court. (Some people want the opposite to apply in Ford v Kavanaugh.)
Wherever sharia is imposed — from the armed camps of Isis to the sharia courts found in Muslim-majority countries — it is women who lose out. Do Senate Democrats care? No. When my wife testified on this subject last year, they ignored her.
The character assassination of Kavanaugh is of course part of a wider campaign against Donald Trump. The evidence of the president’s groping and infidelity is undeniably abundant, but it forms only part of a much broader case against him that encompasses collusion with the Russian government, encouragement of white supremacists, sympathy for authoritarian rulers and plain incompetence.
It’s working. The Trump administration is presiding over the strongest performance by the US economy since the century began. And yet the president has the approval of only around 44% of voters and his party is widely expected to lose its majority in the lower house of Congress at the mid-term elections in early November.
For the first time in its history the United States is seriously threatened with being overtaken economically and technologically by another country. And yet when Trump seeks to check China’s rise by the few means that remain to hand, he is condemned by foreign policy experts for disrupting what they call the “liberal international order”.
International order is preferable to the alternative, obviously. The 20th century was a bloodbath. But it ended with a victory for the free world over another one-party state with a talent for stealing our intellectual property. That victory was won because the United States — regardless of which party was in power — stood firm against Soviet communism.
Whatever international order emerged from the Cold War, it deserves to be called conservative as much as liberal. It represented the triumph of the ideals of economic and political freedom — and their bedrock, the rule of law — that owe as much to Tories as to Whigs. Today, alas, we appear intent on throwing the victories of 1989 away and I do not accept that the populists of the right are solely to blame.
Let me offer two hypotheses about why we are in this mess. The first is that the world’s elite educational institutions are now so dominated by self-styled liberals and progressives that an ever-rising proportion of people in other elite institutions — business, the media, government agencies — now subscribe to all or part of their ideology.
Ask today’s graduate trainees if they think there should be limits to free speech so that people “feel safe”. Ask them if “implicit bias” is something all white men suffer from. Ask them if the achievement of “diversity” matters more than promotion on merit. The answers will mostly be yes. Campus politics is spreading. Soon you, too, will be asked to state your preferred pronouns at the start of each meeting. Perhaps you, too, will be accused of a 30-year-old sex crime.
My second hypothesis is that the rise of internet platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has disastrously worsened the polarisation of the United States. For it is on so-called social media that the show trials of our time are now held, as anyone knows who followed Thursday’s hearing on Twitter.
The rule of law can be killed in more than one way. In liberal nightmares a despotic president sweeps aside the constitution in the manner of a Latin American caudillo. But in conservative nightmares the graduates of Yale Law School agree that social justice would be best served by discarding the presumption of innocence and relying on Twitter polls to determine guilt.
If only Tom Wolfe were still around to write The Bonfire of the Legalities.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
There’s raising Cain — a good, old-fashioned term for running riot or raising hell. And then there’s raising McCain. No American I have met has impressed me more profoundly than Senator John McCain, whose memorial service in Washington I attended yesterday. It was an uplifting occasion, as befitted a true American hero, and I am glad my six-year-old son was by my side to witness it and be inspired by it. But, amid all that patriotic rhetoric, not quite enough was said about John McCain’s hell-raising streak. That was the thing I liked about him most — and it was surely inseparable from his heroism.
I got to know John not long after I began teaching in the United States. I had just published my short history of the British Empire and, rather to my surprise, found myself invited to meet him in his office on Capitol Hill. An avid reader of history, he asked me to suggest some books to take on his regular flights between Washington and Arizona. Flattered, I obliged. It was a misleading overture to an enduring friendship — misleading because that was by far the most professorial conversation we ever had.
One of my fondest memories of John was sitting next to him at the February 2007 Munich security conference, an event he regularly attended. That was the year when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, delivered a remarkably inflammatory speech, denouncing US policy in the Middle East and the expansion of Nato in eastern Europe.
As Putin spoke, I was vividly reminded of Michael Corleone in the Godfather films: behind his deadpan demeanour was pure menace. The effect on John was seismic. I could sense an approaching eruption — indeed, I could see it as that battle-scarred face turned a bright crimson.
No sooner had Putin sat down than John leapt to his feet. “I just can’t let that pass,” he hissed. “I need to make a statement.” Mindful that he was intending to run for the Republican nomination the following year, I and others sought to dissuade him. His attitude was that an impromptu press conference would show admirable restraint. What he really felt like doing was punching Putin’s lights out.
The New York Times, in common with the rest of the liberal media, had few kind words to say about McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign. (I played a minor role as a foreign policy adviser, which taught me that an adviser is someone who doesn’t get paid so that his advice can be easily ignored.) Back then, The New York Times described him as “aggressive” and “erratic”, his campaign as “angry and derisive”. Numerous commentators insisted that he was too old for the job. (He was 72 on election day and, as we now know, could have served two terms as president with a year and a half to spare.)
Now he is dead, of course, the New York Times can fondly remember him as a hero whose “temper that sometimes bordered on explosiveness” was part of his charm. But my view was always that McCain’s passion was a strength, not a weakness, in a potential president. In later life, unlike in his youth, he had that temper under control — as I saw at Munich, where we persuaded him not to shoot back at Putin from the hip. If any man needed no lectures on self-control from liberal journalists, it was John. He had demonstrated superhuman restraint in the “Hanoi Hilton”, refusing an early release by the North Vietnamese that would have spared him years of torture and deprivation.
At that time, his rage was inseparable from his courage. After the North Vietnamese realised they had captured the son of an admiral, they sent a delegation to offer McCain a ticket home. As a fellow prisoner of war recalled, he erupted. “Here’s a guy that’s all crippled up, all busted up, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to live to the next day, and he literally blew them out of there with a verbal assault.”
Men with Scottish roots have played a disproportionate part in the military history of the United States: check the index in any history of America’s wars and you will find a roll of honour from “Mac” to “Mc”. The McCains claim to be descendants of Robert the Bruce. Having known John McCain, I can well believe it.
The Bruce was no mean leader, and I still believe McCain would have been a great president, especially if the Republican apparat had accepted his first choice as running mate, the Democrat Joe Lieberman. Precisely John’s reputation as an irascible warrior would have deterred America’s enemies — Iran, North Korea and Russia — all of whom built up and flexed their military muscles during the presidency of the man who defeated McCain, Barack Obama. At the same time, as I argued then, precisely McCain’s hawkish record would have made it easier for him to pursue détente with our foes.
In short, I yield to no one in my admiration for John McCain. Had he been elected president — whether in 2000 or in 2008 — the United States and democracy around the world would be in a better state than they are today.
Yet there is one oft-repeated line I don’t endorse: we shall not see his like again. I don’t believe that. On the contrary, I think we are already seeing the emergence of a new generation of veterans turned politicians in his mould: men (and women) who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and are now playing an increasingly important role in public life.
More than a third of the new Republican House members elected in 2016 were veterans, as were 12% of their Democratic counterparts. All told, 95 representatives and senators have military experience. And more are almost certainly coming to Washington in the future. As of November 2016, according to the American Enterprise Institute, 1,039 out of 7,383 state-level legislators had veteran status. This is remarkable, considering that the transition from the draft to an all-volunteer force has greatly reduced the share of service personnel in the total population.
Of course, today’s veteran legislators — men such as Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher — would be the first to say that McCain was in a league of his own. Yet this generation, too, bears the scars of war. Brian Mast, the Republican who represents Florida’s 18th district, lost both legs in Afghanistan.
McCain personified the ideal of the Roman as well as the American Republic: the citizen-warrior who applies the wisdom learnt in battle to the good governance of the commonwealth, upholding the martial virtues among the lawyers and lobbyists. At a time when honour is conspicuous by its absence from the White House, we shall miss him. But we shall see his like again.
Indeed, I believe the widespread and bipartisan mourning of McCain’s passing is itself a harbinger of a new era in American politics, when those who have already served their country in battle serve it again as civilians — by raising Cain against the cynicism and corruption that for too long have threatened to ruin it.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
My six-year-old son and I have been reading Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. His books are a kind of atheist antidote to CS Lewis’s delightful Narnia series. Central to the plot is the idea, derived from modern physics, that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes and there could be wormholes that connect one universe to another.
Pullman’s Oxford appears in two versions: one the Oxford we know, still charming but increasingly blighted by modernity’s ugliness, and another — in a world where far less has changed since the 17th century.
Perhaps there are multiple universes. Perhaps there is a planet Earth where, two years ago, about 39,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump. What might that planet be like today? The obvious answer is that the impeachment of the president would have begun a year and a half ago.
Trump’s tweets on Friday amounted to a garbled charge sheet, listing all the political detritus Republicans would have packaged as “high crimes and misdemeanours” if Clinton had won the election. He urged the attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, to “look into all of the corruption on the ‘other side’ including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr, FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems — and so much more”.
If the names McCabe, Strzok, Page and Ohr mean nothing to you, you haven’t been watching nearly enough Fox News. Andrew McCabe was — until he was sacked in March for allegedly leaking information to the media — the deputy director of the FBI. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were the romantically entangled FBI agent and lawyer respectively whose pre-election tweets included a pledge to “stop” Trump becoming president. Bruce Ohr was, until late last year, an associate deputy attorney-general; his wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS, a research and intelligence firm, where she collaborated with former MI6 officer Christopher Steele on the notorious anti-Trump dossier.
Had Clinton become president, Trump TV would be vying with Fox to convince viewers that all these individuals were part of a deep state conspiracy to rig the election against the Republican candidate. I have little doubt that the House Republicans would have begun impeachment proceedings against Clinton soon after her inauguration.
America can seem like a madhouse these days, but I am not sure it would be much less mad if Clinton had won. It might even be madder. After all, Trump’s victory was a cathartic moment for the millions of people deeply disaffected with the political establishment personified by the Clintons. They are now living through the slow, creeping disillusionment that nearly always follows a populist victory. If there had been no catharsis, think how readily they would have accepted the rigged election story. Think how much more toxic the political atmosphere might be.
Yet the argument “Clinton would have been as bad, or worse” doesn’t get us far. It is intriguing to contemplate that parallel universe in which she’s the one facing impeachment, but it doesn’t tell us what will happen next in this world where Trump is the one on the hook.
I am not a lawyer. On the other hand, Michael Cohen is — or was — a lawyer. It’s a devalued currency these days. Anyway, no one can say definitively if the action of which Trump was accused by his former attorney last week qualifies as a high crime. Alan Dershowitz — the brilliant law professor who has dismayed many of his Martha’s Vineyard neighbours by sticking up for Trump — says there’s no crime at all “if, as a candidate, [Trump] contributes to his own campaign” by giving hush money to Stormy Daniels.
So maybe it wasn’t a high crime, but it was certainly pretty low conduct on Trump’s part to pay off his porn-star former mistress during an election and disguise the payment as a tax-deductible business expense. In any case, Cohen’s lawyer said last week his client has more dirt to dish; dirt that is supposedly relevant to Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the election.
Whatever the charges against Trump, of course, the question of whether or not he is impeached lies in the realm of politics more than the realm of law. It depends on whether the Democrats win back the House of Representatives in November. It depends on whether their leaders in Congress decide to go for impeachment. As a profession, journalists would like nothing more than to re-enact the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. But Watergate would’ve been slightly easier to replay with Clinton as president because, in that parallel universe, the opposing party would control both House and Senate. Even so, getting a two-thirds majority in the Senate seems unattainable by either party in our time. That means any impeachment of Trump is much more likely to lead to a rerun of Bill Clinton’s failed impeachment than to a Nixon-style resignation.
Two variables in the coming months will be Trump himself and Republican voters. The president is a reckless man who has repeatedly made matters worse for himself. The denouement of his presidency may resemble a gangster film in which the bloodshed escalates exponentially as the forces of law close in and the goodfellas lose their heads.
The other key question is whether or not Republican voters will stick with Trump through thick and thin, regardless of what is revealed about his conduct and character. The author and journalist Salena Zito has been far and away the shrewdest observer of Trump supporters. Her view is that Trump’s base may cleave even more closely to their man if impeachment happens.
“These voters knew who Trump was going in,” she wrote last week. “They knew he was a thrice-married, Playmate-dating, Howard Stern regular who had the morals of an alley cat. They were willing to look past all of that because of how institutions had failed their communities for three consecutive presidencies. Right now [Trump] . . . is all that stands between them and handing the keys to Washington back over to the people inside Washington.”
There are, to repeat, other universes.
Somewhere out there, no doubt, a parallel universe exists where the American colonies did not revolt against Britain and what we call today the United States is more like south Canada. In that universe Americans have the same constitutional arrangements as Canadians and Australians — a system in which prime ministers have to be party leaders and their powers are more circumscribed than a US president’s.
There are of course populists in that other world, just as there are populists in Canada and Australia today, but no one as powerful as Trump. Instead, I can report, Paul Ryan has just been forced to step down as “prime minister”. Boring, I know. So count yourself lucky to be living in much the most interesting of all the possible universes.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford