Reading Midterms

WASHINGTON — Democrats who were looking to Tuesday’s mixed bag of special and primary elections for firm confirmation of their much-sought “blue wave” of public Trump rejection had to settle for an interim maybe.

Perhaps the best they had to show for it was a very near miss in a congressional district in Ohio that Trump had won by 11 points in 2016. The Republican who supported him was narrowly ahead and declared victory although the race ended too close to call.

The expected big Democratic turnout did materialize, but maybe not to the degree or result the party hoped for, to signal the beginning of the end of the Trump era. If the Democrats learned anything from the day’s voting, it was that they may need to offer more varied political fare than their volley of anti-Trump sentiment to carry the day on next Nov. 6.

At the same time, Republican congressional candidates still need to decide whether their own political survival rests with continuing to embrace a president who seems bent on shattering norms of behavior and morality. Or do they finally need to defend old party values and objectives, before the Republican Party of their forebears is a thing of the past.

For all this, it seems undeniable that the major significance in the midterm elections three months from now lies in the question whether Democrats can seize control of the House of Representatives, where any presidential impeachment procedure must begin.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into 2016 Russian election meddling obviously holds the key to Trump’s fate, but Democratic victory in the midterm elections also could cause him much grief short of possible impeachment. Giving the opposition party control of House committees with subpoena powers could become a Trump nightmare beyond the threat of a subpoena from Mueller ordering him to testify in his inquiry, which the president’s lawyers continue to resist.

Trump’s well-established penchant for saying or tweeting first and thinking of the ramifications thereafter (if at all) makes him a suicidal time bomb with a short fuse. One way or another, the continuing confrontation between him and Mueller portends a historic clash, either in a hearing room or before the Supreme Court, over whether a sitting president can be required by subpoena to testify.

Trump’s nomination of federal judge Brett Kavanaugh to the highest court has focused a spotlight on his earlier writings that such a president cannot or should not be so compelled. They certainly will provide fodder for Senate Democratic opposition to his confirmation when it comes to the floor, possibly before the Nov. 6 midterms.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to take direct aim at Mueller by saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions “should” rescind his own recusal from the meddling case and simply fire Mueller, which seems a clear-cut example of obstruction of justice.

On the surface at least, such an act would be a confirmation of the old axiom attributed to Lincoln that “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Indeed, in having former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another politician who also seems to speak before he thinks, the application seems doubly valid.

In any event, the political playbook for the months ahead until the midterm elections will be for or against Donald Trump, behind a faÁade of issues from a threatened government shutdown over the border wall to tax and immigration reform and the state of the economy.

Congressional candidates customarily strive to win votes on the basis of what they promise to deliver for the folks back home. Many in both parties will again set out to make that effort.

But hanging over these next midterms will be whether the chaotic reign of this president gets endorsement for at least two more years of Republican majority support on Capitol Hill, or a running two-year fight over the man himself and his agenda of personal aggrandizement in the Oval Office.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.