The Arena, Abba Eban Institute, IDC, November 1, 2018
Trump: a coattail – or an anchor chained – President?
The November 2018 mid-term election will determine the future maneuverability of President Trump, and will shape the dominant worldview of the strongest legislature in the world, which is co-determining and co-equal to the executive branch, and Israel’s systematic and most effective ally in face of pressure by all US Presidents from Truman through Obama.
The coming mid-term election will be – once again – a referendum on the popularity of a sitting President: 49% approval rating (50% disapproval) of President Trump, according to a November 1 Rasmussen Reports; 40% (54% disapproval) according to an October 28 Gallup poll; 43.9% (53% disapproval) according to an October 31 RealClear Politics.
Will Trump be a coattail-President elevating the Republican party to mid-term election gains in the House and Senate, as has happened on rare occasions, such as the 1934 election (President Roosevelt), 1998 (President Clinton) and 2002 (President G.W. Bush)?
Or, will Trump be an anchor-chained President pulling the Republican party down to significant losses – and even to minority status in one/both Chambers – as has usually been the case: President Obama (2014 and 2010), President G.W. Bush (2006), President Clinton (1994), President G.H. Bush (1990), President Reagan (1986 and 1982), President Carter (1978), President Ford/Nixon (1974), etc.?
Since 1950, a sitting President’s party has lost an average of 24 House seats in the mid-term election, which is the minimum required for a Democratic House majority in 2019. The current balance is: 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats.
The Senate hurdle – facing the Democrats – is much higher, since the 35 Senate seats up for the coming November election consist of 9 Republicans and 26 Democrats, 10 of whom are in states won by President Trump in 2016 (only 1 Republican incumbent from a state won by Hilary Clinton in 2016), and 13 Democratic incumbents from states with a republican governor (no Republican incumbent from a state governed by a Democrat).
While sustaining the Republican majority in the House and Senate would maintain President Trump’s relative-freedom of operation, a loss of one/two Chambers would tie his hands internally and globally, commercially and militarily, due to the power of the US Legislature, which was deemed by the Founding Fathers as the “secret weapon” against a potential tyranny of the Executive.
The centrality of the US constituent and Congress
The unique power of the US Legislature – compared to all other democracies – was crafted by the 1789 US Constitution, which enshrined the concept of liberty (impacted by the Biblical concept of Jubilee, as inscribed on the Liberty Bell), by ensuring the co-equal, co-determining and independent status of the Legislature, as defined by the first article of the Constitution.
At the same time, the Constitution limits the power of the President, who – unlike other Western democracies – is not a super legislator, does not determine the legislative agenda, nor the identity of the legislators and the leaderships of the House and Senate, committees and subcommittees.
The natural ultra-ambition of the Executive branch is neutralized (in the US) by a complete separation of power among the co-equal and co-determining Legislature, Executive and Judiciary; an elaborate system of checks and balances; endowing the Legislature with the Power of the Purse and Oversight of the Executive; and the co-existence of the Federal government side-by-side with the governments of the 50 States. This transforms the American voters into the strongest constituents in the globe, directly determining the fate of their legislators, and the level of Presidential maneuverability, every two years.
Therefore, legislators are loyal, first and foremost, to their constituents, lest they follow in the footsteps of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley (defeated in the 1994 general election) and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (defeated in the 2014 primaries), who were substantially more engaged with national party issues, than with the concerns of their district constituents. In fact, the clout of constituents – who opposed the increase of imports – caused 2/3 and over 1/2 of the Democratic House Representatives to vote against Democratic President Clinton’s Free Trade Agreements with China (in 2000) and Canada (in 1993) respectively.
The US Constitution provides Congress with the power to limit, amend, suspend, rescind, fund/defund and investigate Presidential policies, establish and abolish government agencies (e.g., in 1947 and 2001, Congress established the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security respectively), initiate and terminate the development of military systems, confirm/reject appointments to top government positions, ratify/reject international treaties, covenants and agreements, impose/remove sanctions on foreign countries, etc.
Amending the US Constitution requires a 2/3 majority in both Chambers in addition to 3/4 of the Legislatures of the 50 States – a majority which is extremely difficult to assemble, and therefore only 27 Amendments to the Constitution have been approved so far. Legislators prefer to focus on district and state issues – which preoccupy their constituents – rather than national security and foreign policy issues, which attract the attention of a slim percentage of the constituency. However, the Legislature can flex its awesome muscle and severely limit or overrule a President – on domestic, national security and foreign policy issue – when a President acts like a monarch, ignores the Legislature, implements a significantly failed policy, or departs sharply from the worldview of US voters.
Globalization has expanded the number of congressional districts, which depend on foreign trade and the global arena, hence the substantially expanded number of legislators involved in international-oriented legislations.
Limiting the Commander-in-Chief
While the US Constitution (Article 2, Section 2) refers to the President as the Commander-in-Chief, his maneuverability can be heavily constrained by Congress.
For example, in 1974, Congress legislated – in defiance of the Administration – the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which facilitated the Aliyah (immigration) of one million Soviet Jews to Israel. In 1964, Congress passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” which authorized President Johnson to launch the military involvement in Vietnam, but in 1973 – in defiance of President Nixon – the Church-Case Amendment terminated the US military involvement in Southeast Asia, as did the Clark Amendment (1976) and the Boland Amendment (1984) – in defiance Presidents Ford and Reagan respectively – to the US military involvement in Angola and Nicaragua, respectively. In 1986, Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, which paved the road to ending South Africa’s Apartheid regime. In 1999, President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but the Senate has yet to ratify it. The 2012 Defense budget included Congressional sanctions, which halved Iran’s oil export, contrary to President Obama’s policy. In 2012, in opposition to President Obama’s stance – Congress reduced foreign aid to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt by $450MN. In 2015, the Senate refused to ratify the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA), thus enabling President Trump to withdraw from the agreement in 2018. In 2017/2018, Congress enacted the Russian Sanctions Bill, notwithstanding President Trump’s opposition.
Congress and Israel
Being the most authentic representative of the US constituency, both Congressional chambers reflect the special attitude by the American people toward the Jewish State since the 17th century’s Early Pilgrims. According to the 2018 annual Gallup poll of country-favorability, Israel benefits from a 74% favorability (71% in 2017). Israel is perceived as a special ally, morally and strategically, in a region with is vital to the US economy, national and homeland security.
For instance, in 1891 – six years before the First Zionist Congress – 431 top US personalities, including the Chief Justice, the House Speaker, additional Congressional leaders, Governors, Mayors and businessmen, signed the (William) Blackstone Memorial, calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel. In 1947/48, the State Department, Pentagon and CIA, along with the NY Times – in contradiction to public opinion and Congress – lobbied brutally against the establishment of the Jewish State. In 1957, leaders of the US Senate and House (led by then Senate Majority Leader LBJ) forced President Eisenhower to retreat from imposing sanctions on Israel (in an attempt to force an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza), but they were “outflanked” by Israel’s full withdrawal…. During 1990-1992, Congress (led by the late Senator Daniel Inouye – D-HI) expanded US-Israel strategic cooperation unprecedentedly, notwithstanding the systematic, aggressive opposition by President G.H. Bush and Secretary of State Jim Baker. In 2014, Congress thwarted President Obama’s attempt – during the Protective Edge war in Gaza – to withhold $225MN, which were committed to Israel’s acquisition of Iron Dome’s missiles.
The 400 year old roots of the special American attitude toward the Jewish State; the track record of Israel as a uniquely unconditional, reliable, effective ally, militarily, economically, scientifically and morally; as well as Israel’s role/potential in face of the mounting challenges and threats to the US and the Free World, provide for the sustained Congressional support of enhanced US-Israel strategic cooperation, in spite of the retirement of a relatively-large number of pro-Israel legislators, and the expected election of a few potentially-hostile new legislators.
The US public, in general, and the 2019 incoming Congress, in particular, will approach Israel, by and large, in accordance with Israel’s proven and potential contribution – to the US – in facing the threats of the anti-US Iran’s Ayatollahs; Sunni and Shite terrorism (from the Middle East to Latin America); and the need to bolster the pro-US Arab regimes, which have the Ayatollahs’ machete at their throats.
The incoming Congress will become, increasingly, aware of Israel’s proven capabilities (already benefitting the US and the pro-US Arab regimes) in the areas of intelligence, counter-terrorism, conventional warfare, counter-Cyber warfare, upgrading and developing military systems, groundbreaking hi-tech innovations, irrigation, agriculture, etc.
The November 2018 midterm election will produce the 116th Congress, which will determine the domestic and international maneuverability of President Trump, including US-Israel relations, which have been transformed from a one-way street to a mutually-beneficial, two-way street relations, increasingly benefitting the US militarily and economically.
Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
The Ettinger Report
“Second Thought: A US-Israel Initiative”
This article was first published in The Ettinger Report November 1, 2018
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