US Midterms and Trump’s Campaign Will Put Pressure on Europe
US voters flipped the script of the midterms, to Europe’s relief, but Donald Trump’s likely return to the campaign trail will fray transatlantic nerves again. US domestic dynamics are likely to put more pressure on Europeans to shoulder greater burdens for Ukraine and get tougher on China.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
On November 8, US voters transformed the midterm elections from a test of the Democratic Party’s leadership into a referendum on the goals and personalities driving the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s anticipated announcement one week later that he is again campaigning for the presidency is the opening salvo in what will be a bitter fight for the Republican soul.
Historically, the midterms serve as a new president’s report card. In almost all midterm elections in recent memory, the president’s party has lost Congressional seats after taking office: Donald Trump lost 40 seats, Barack Obama lost 63 seats, and Bill Clinton lost 54 seats. This year, the Democrats are likely to lose their slim majority in the House of Representatives, with control flipping to the Republicans. But the Democrats’ House losses were minimal, and they retain their majority in the US Senate. The Republican showing, on the other hand, was the worst for a party out of power in two decades.
Democrats fared better than expected for two reasons. First, even though 49 percent of midterm voters were Republicans and 43 percent were Democrats, independent voters favored Democrats by four points across the country and by double-digit margins in key states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona. Second, Democrats displayed remarkable discipline, whereas Republican infighting muddled the party’s message and alienated voters.
This is not normally the case. The Democrats’ historical reputation as a quarrelsome lot was immortalized by humorist Will Rogers’ admission that he was not a member of any organized political party: He was a Democrat. Yet this time around, the party largely managed its many fractious differences to deliver some notable successes at the state and national levels. Republicans, in contrast, are usually known for their discipline. No longer. The ongoing intra-party feud between mainstream conservatives and insurgents stoked by Donald Trump has again broken into pitched battle, as the party licks its wounds, assigns blame, and looks ahead to the 2024 presidential election.
Elephants or Frogs?
Trump’s widely expected announcement on November 15 that he is again running for president does not erase the fact that he was the real loser of the 2022 midterm elections. Most Republicans he endorsed lost; many Republicans he opposed won. Trump remains a formidable force; he continues to electrify the grass roots within his party. He has risen many times from seeming political doom. Yet he faces potent headwinds. Trump Republicans have lost ground in three successive election cycles. Formerly loyal media outlets and social media influencers have turned on him. Once-loyal Republican leaders now want to dump him. His intra-party nemesis, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, cruised to an easy second-term victory and is now an ascendent contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Trump’s return to the campaign trail is likely to engulf the party in internecine warfare for the next two years.
These feuds are likely to limit the impact of the Republicans’ anticipated razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives. Whoever becomes Speaker of the House will find it difficult to control the raucous Republican caucus. The political symbol of the Republicans is the elephant. Yet former House Speaker John Boehner preferred a different image: trying to secure his own party’s support to pass a bill, he once said, was like keeping “218 frogs in a wheelbarrow.” In the end, Boehner was overthrown by the same House Freedom Caucus that is again threatening to hold House leadership priorities hostage to its Trump-friendly demands.
The Republicans’ internal divisions mean that an obstructionist agenda will be far easier to advance than one geared to advancing a positive, coherent alternative to the Democrats. The House Republican leadership is likely to wield two key Congressional powers—those of budget and oversight—to cut away at the past two years of Democratic legislative achievements, such as COVID-19 relief, climate protection, and infrastructure outlays. They will investigate alleged Democratic improprieties. To extract spending cuts, they will likely force a showdown over the coming need to raise the US government’s debt ceiling, which determines its ability to pay its bills. Debt ceiling brinkmanship in 2011 sent global markets spinning.
Ultimately, Republican influence will be limited by their own infighting, by the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, and by President Joe Biden’s veto power. Nonetheless, on domestic issues, Democrats will be playing defense.
Foreign Policy Implications
Most midterm voters were focused on hot-button local issues like rising food and gasoline prices, abortion and reproductive rights, migration pressures, crime and safety, and concerns about the integrity of the democratic process. Foreign policy played a far lesser role, yet the global ripples of US voter decisions will affect America’s allies and adversaries alike.
The most urgent test will be support for Ukraine. Since Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, substantial bipartisan majorities in Congress have approved Biden administration requests for more than $67 billion in military and non-military assistance. Most Americans support continuing aid to Ukraine. The nature, level, and duration of such assistance, however, has become a partisan issue.
In March 2022, only 6 percent of Republicans said the US was doing too much to help Ukraine. Now 48 percent of Republicans feel that way. But when it came to a vote in May, 57 House Republicans and 11 senators came out against legislation authorizing additional support for Ukraine. Now only 35 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents say they support additional financial aid for Ukraine, compared to 81percent of Democrats.
Democrats are also more willing than Republicans to pay a price for their support for Ukraine. While 78 percent of Democrats are prepared to see higher energy costs, only 44 percent of Republicans say the same. 72 percent of Democrats are prepared to pay with higher inflation; only 39 percent of Republicans agree.
While Republicans are likely to support further lethal aid to Ukraine, they will use their oversight and budget powers to scrutinize the Biden administration’s stewardship of that assistance and demand greater accountability. That is what House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy meant when he warned last month that Congress wouldn’t “write a blank check to Ukraine” under Republican leadership.
Frustration with Europe’s Sluggish Pace
Republicans may be ready to provide conditional military support to Kyiv, but they will be less willing to support non-military assistance. Republicans and Democrats alike are frustrated with the sluggish pace of European support. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the US has provided more than twice the military, financial, and humanitarian support to Ukraine than European states and EU institutions combined. Stung by this unfavorable comparison, the EU argues that its entire support for Ukraine totals over $43 billion, much of which has been spent on over 4 million Ukrainian refugees. Nonetheless, there is bipartisan agreement that the Europeans need to do more.
The Biden administration has sought to manage this burden-sharing mismatch in the interest of holding together the pro-Ukraine coalition. Republicans care less about such sensitivities; they will castigate European allies for taking advantage of US largesse. And there is full expectation that Europe will shoulder the greatest burdens when it comes to Ukraine’s reconstruction and rehabilitation. J.D. Vance, the newly-elected, Trump-friendly Republican senator from Ohio, expressed this sentiment clearly on the campaign trail: “The Europeans need to step up,” he said, “And frankly, if [they] knew that America wasn’t going to foot the bill, they might actually step up.”
The Biden administration and pro-Ukraine lawmakers are likely to push through an additional multibillion-dollar assistance package for Ukraine in December, before the Republicans assume leadership of the House. But in 2023, debates over the nature and levels of Ukraine assistance will be fraught—particularly since Democrats, too, are conflicted over such support. Biden and other Democratic leaders have said they will support Ukraine “as long as it takes” and that they will not force Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to the negotiating table. Yet progressive Democrats are urging Biden to pursue direct negotiations with Russia and begin working on a diplomatic path to end the war.
All of these currents play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly expressed his belief that his country can sustain its aggression longer than the West can stay united in support of Ukraine.
The China Challenge
If Ukraine is the most urgent foreign policy issue to be affected by the midterms, China is likely to be the most significant. Here the dynamics are different. Both the US public and leaders across the political spectrum agree that China is the US’ most “consequential geopolitical challenge,” in the words of the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy. The Republican-controlled House is likely to compete with the Biden administration and the Democratic majority in the Senate over who is tougher on China; how far the US should go to recast China-US interdependencies; what tools it should use; and how best to win allies to its cause.
President Biden has taken major steps to blunt China’s rise and to cast global attention on Beijing’s violations of human rights, its coercive economic activities, and its efforts to undermine the current global order, even as he has sought to manage US-China competition and identify areas of common interest, including in his bilateral talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week. Overall, Democrats’ views are more in line with the EU’s characterization of China as a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival” (although in reverse priority order). Many Republicans, in contrast, would go much further to “decouple” the US from China. They reject the notion of China as a “partner,” arguing that climate cooperation, for instance, makes it harder to meet the China challenge. And they criticize the Biden administration’s view that the US and China must “share in and contribute to human progress together,” because they believe the two countries view the political and economic underpinnings of that progress differently.
Republican and Democratic tactics on China may differ, but the implications for US allies are broadly the same: The United States expects “like-minded” partners to join forces with it to confront the China challenge.
For most of the past decade, many European countries—with Germany in the forefront—preferred to look at China primarily through the prism of economic opportunity. There are signs that this is changing faster in other European countries than in Germany. Yet it is questionable whether European governments are really willing to go as far as the US in restricting Chinese investments in strategic industries and ports, denying critical components and technologies to Chinese companies, or to muster the necessary resources to rebuild Europe’s innovation base as they grapple with energy turmoil, raging inflation, and pending recession.
US political gridlock also means that Europe should expect little movement on other important matters. There is scant interest in a nuclear deal with Iran, given the regime’s continued efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities and its active support of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The US Congress is unlikely to pass Trade Promotion Authority to enable the executive branch to push new trade agreements. There is an outside chance that Democrats can arrange waivers to include US-based European companies when it comes to the Inflation Reduction Act’s subsidies for electric vehicles and batteries “made in America.” But bilateral irritants will continue to hamper US-EU efforts to make their partnership truly strategic.
The midterms’ upside for Europe is that transatlantic differences are still likely to play out in the context of unity rather than division. The more sobering takeaway is that America’s domestic dynamics will raise US expectations that Europeans should shoulder greater burdens when it comes to their own continent’s security and share broader burdens when it comes to dealing with China and other global challenges. These expectations will rise further as voters turn their attention to the US presidential election in 2024.
Daniel S. Hamilton is Senior non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is President of the Transatlantic Leadership Network.