Did he win or lose? This is the question that springs to mind the day after the 2018 midterm elections - presented by Donald Trump as a national referendum on himself - which saw the Republican party retain control of the Senate and lose its majority in the House in favor its Democratic colleagues.
Given the complexity of the American institutional system, there is no single answer. One could venture to call it a draw, with points victory for the Democratic Party, which from today, for the next two years, will be required to put up tough (and serious) opposition to the American President to avert his re-election in 2020.
The self-proclaimed victory
According to Donald Trump, the outcome of the midterm represents a victory for his party, the result of a 'magical effect' of the president himself on the American electorate. His satisfaction is justified by the fact that the Republicans have retained control of the Senate, strengthening their presence in the upper House of Congress.
Benefiting from a record turnout, they held on to their majority, increasing their seats from 51 to the current 54-55, asserting themselves in the key state of Florida, where Scott beat Nelson, albeit by a whisker. Democratic senators instead disappointed expectations, snatching only Nevada and failing to break through in Tennessee, but above all losing Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota.
It is worth pointing out that the growth in the number of Republicans in the Senate is the result of a competition in which the Great Old Party (GOP) had a head start. 23 of the 33 seats up for grabs in these midterm elections were held by the Democratic Party (which had the arduous task of defending all of them), three of them in strongholds of their opponents - Montana, North Dakota and Missouri, who took them all back this time round.
A Democratic recovery
In this context, regaining control of the House of Representatives - which was widely expected prior to polling - has a bittersweet taste for the party's establishment. While it may be true that the results of the elections for the House confirm a disaffection with the figure of the president, it is equally true that the proportion of the Democratic recovery was fairly limited, or at least below expectations. In short, America has not fully turned its back on Donald Trump, although it definitely sanctioned a clear retreat in the White House occupant’s popularity.
Democrats achieved a significant 9% increase on the previous elections and gained a total of 222 seats in the House, well past the majority threshold of 218 seats. Governor election results also showed good performance by the party, which succeeded in unseating Republicans in office in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan and New Mexico.
However, considering Trump's highly divisive approach in the first two years of his term, one might have expected (or hoped, in the eyes of many observers) that the blue wave had a different consistency in terms of both numbers and the political narrative, an element that even today seems to be missing from the "blue" team. The Tycoon, instead, despite his endless contradictions and decidedly unconventional ways, has shown that he knows how to stand his ground and limit the damage caused by the Democratic recovery.
A new phase now begins for Trump, during which, in addition to attacks from within his own party, he will also face a hostile branch of Congress with the power to rein in his political, if not verbal, vehemence.
Regardless of any potential impeachment, the president will find his hands tied by the Democratic opposition on a range of key issues for American politics and the economy, including the infrastructure plan, the future of NAFTA, Obamacare. Democrats will have to choose very carefully how to use the powers US electors have given them, and on what basis to conduct its own battles in Congress. The temptation to engage in personal conflict against a first-rate political “fighter” like Trump could prove counterproductive. The focus will instead have to be on substantial issues, avoiding any extreme polarizations which Trump would be the first to benefit from.
Internationally, this might generally mean more caution and moderation in the Administration’s actions. In the Middle East, and particularly in Iran, this could limit Trump's more sensational initiatives, although it seems very unlikely that the president will reverse his position in key areas, most notably Iranian nuclear power. At the same time, internal pressure from the Democrats (who could launch institutional initiatives to prove his collusion with Moscow) may lead the White House incumbent to take a harsher approach to Russia, with implications for the security balance in Europe. A continent which, thanks to the rebalancing of political forces within Congress, might hope to open a channel for dialog with Washington regarding NATO commitments and trade relations, the latter being the focus of Democratic Party attention in its opposition to the Chinese.
All of this is obviously theoretical. Because the US president - as he showed to the very end of this election campaign - can't resist a coup de théâtre.