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Cornell Prof. Glenn Altschuler: “The Midterm Elections are Over. Now What?”


Cornell University professor Glenn Altschuler speaks about the midterm elections.
Cornell University professor Glenn Altschuler speaks about the midterm elections.  Photo: Fredrick (Drew) Anderson '21

Glenn Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, presented Nov. 12 on his reactions to the 2018 Midterm elections, and his expectations for the future of the Democrat-led House of Representatives.

Altschuler reviewed the election results and noted that elections remain ongoing in a number of races. He said it’s likely that the Democrats will gain something north of 35 seats in the House of Representatives, and in the Senate it seems likely that Republicans will gain either two or three seats. The Democrats will have gained eight governorships.

The 2018 Midterm Elections are widely considered a win for Democrats, though not necessarily the ‘blue tsunami’ that some Democrats anticipated. Altschuler said that in votes cast in all the House races, the Democrats will have gotten 7% more votes than the Republicans. “Now, that is a very good showing by the Democrats,” he said. According to Altschuler, “it didn’t appear to be quite as good on election night,” meaning that “Democrats didn’t gain as much in public perceptions of the election as the results actually dictated, and President Trump declared victory.

“There was some justification, at least in the early aftermath of the election, that it was not a blue wave,” Altschuler admitted. Once political scientists had a chance to pore over the election data, Altschuler noted that “these numbers actually are a blue wave–not a blue tsunami–but a blue wave,” and he observed that, since 1948, “the average gain in the House of Representatives of the party out of power is 28 seats.”

As of Nov. 12, the Democrats are on track to gain seven more seats than the average party-out-of-power. “They have done a lot better in gaining governorships than the average, and given the fact that they were defending almost all of [their] seats in the Senate, from Senators [who] came from red states, the results from the Senate are not unexpected,” Altschuler said.

Democracies aren’t about elections exclusively. They’re about information, decision making.

Altschuler said, “In my view, the election of 2018 will mean that partisan lines will harden, polarization–already intense–will intensify even more. There are going to be no changes in the American political environment for the next year at least, and in fact things are likely to result in President Trump doubling down on the approach he has taken.”

Moving on to the ramifications of the election for the Democrats, Altschuler observed that Democrats must “regroup now that they control the House of Representatives, they must set legislative priorities, and they must set their political strategy. They’ve got an immediate problem that they must surmount first.” He asked student “what’s that problem?”

“Nancy Pelosi wants to be speaker of the house,” replied Elizabeth Atherton ‘22. “Yes!”, said Altschuler, “About 30 Democratic congressional candidates said ‘I’m not gonna vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker’”, and according to Altschuler, “That’s a problem! It’s also a problem for the Democrats that the they don’t have a challenger for Nancy Pelosi.”

Altschuler declared dryly that “The Democratic party is led by elderly, inarticulate, non- photogenic, clumsy office holders, and they need a generational change. Nancy Pelosi is a very talented inside player. She is not an effective spokesperson for the party.”

Altschuler also remarked on the need for a legislative agenda for the Democrats, noting that bills that they pass are likely to perish in the Senate or to be vetoed by President Trump. But according to Altschuler, “That should not deter [Democrats] from passing legislation. What they should be doing is setting an agenda for the future that gives voters a sense that they would do better if [Democrats] were in power.”

Altschuler went on to set out a legislative plan for Democrats, including a health care bill that “expands Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, that reaffirms protection for prior conditions, and that in some fashion protects the existing features of the ACA.” He said Democrats should pass an infrastructure bill as well as “a middle-class tax cut combined with a partial repeal of the Trump corporate tax break, even though it has no chance of getting through.” Altschuler noted that one of the most important moves of the Democratic-led House is “to make clear that they’re doing the business of legislation. As they do so, they should exercise their oversight function, and that means hearings from various committees on ethical lapses that are alleged among many of the current cabinet officials and others in the Trump administration. They well might and should subpoena Trump’s tax returns” because “it is a legitimate part of oversight.”

Altschuler stopped short of recommending that the House impeach President Trump, as at the moment, Altschuler said there is “no chance” of the Senate convicting the President of an offense. “It would be very dumb in my judgement, on the part of the Democrats, to impeach him. It would hand him an issue that he wants.”

Maybe most important of all, Altschuler said that “Democrats need to begin to sort out who their presidential nominee will be.” In his concluding remarks, Altschuler made note of the 2016 Presidential Election, observing that, “At a time in which generational change seemed the obvious way to go, the parties nominated the two oldest candidates in American history to run against each other, and those two candidates were the only two candidates in American history to run against one another when neither of them had an approval rating from the electorate that was above 50%.” At the end of the Q&A, talking about the current polarization of American politics, Altschuler said “These are worrisome times. I’m not going to try and sugarcoat that, and we need to be doing more than we are now.”

Altschuler’s lecture was made possible by a generous gift from the Winston Foundation and the Victor S. “Torry” Johnson III Fund.

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