If you are one of the people who thinks this way, you were no doubt greatly frustrated by the midterm results, by their woolly indeterminacy, by their abject failure to live up to their billing as “the most consequential election of our lifetime.” Your side didn’t really win big enough, and what’s worse, the other side didn’t lose painfully and definitively enough.
But if you’re like me, a friend of Ed Burke and one of the last seven Buckleyite conservatives not bred in captivity, then you’re probably experiencing the closest thing to contentment that events have allowed for in some time.
That’s because the midterms were a victory neither for revolutionaries nor reactionaries, but for muddlers-along who hope that our present troubles are not prelude but interlude, just another thing that too shall pass. For us, Tuesday could scarcely have gone better.
The Democrats have taken the House. They’ll no doubt spend a great deal of time with their newfound subpoena power investigating the real-estate huckster and brand ambassador who leads the executive branch. That suits me fine. If the president is crooked in additional ways beyond those that are already matters of public record, then the public should probably know. But the ground will not buckle in the near term. It isn’t that a third of Americans would shrug if the president were to shoot a man on Fifth Avenue; it’s that they’ve priced in the likelihood that he already did so at some point in the 1980s and aggressively wrote off the depreciation on the pistol.
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The new House majority will also no doubt audition policies for the 2020 election. Universal basic income, say. These dead letters, which will likely go directly to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s spam folder, might even prompt something approximating earnest public debate about the future of entitlements (even muddlers-along can dream), but they will not become law in the 116th Congress. Indeed, the greatest likelihood is that there will be no new major legislation for the next two years.
Sure, there will be whisperers in the president’s ear urging him to reach across the aisle with a big infrastructure package. Democratic leadership might even go for it. But even if they do, any new fellow feeling will be quickly metabolized. Ours is a machine that runs on negative partisanship now, and that won’t change just because a few bridge abutments get fixed. On Monday, lawmakers may be all grins and backslaps at a bipartisan bill-signing ceremony. On Tuesday, their opponents will go back to being not just wrong, but evil.
Far likelier is that the effort at bipartisanship will never get off the ground. And that while House Democrats spend all their time worrying at the president’s flanks, McConnell will continue to remake the federal judiciary. His majority expanded by pliant freshmen, he’ll no longer have to run his offense through Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a waking nightmare for vast swaths of the progressive left, becomes a live possibility. More broadly, the Federalist Society, the last functioning limb of conservative intellectualism and the one least dependent on a personality cult, will through a combination of design and accident have control over a kind of constitutional Khyber Pass. In other words, the only things that will move with any speed through our institutional order—judges—will do so under the guidance and at the direction of just about the last people left who care about the same things I do.