President Trump and his allies are searching for silver linings.
With the midterm elections less than seven weeks away, prognosticators give Democrats an 80 percent chance of reclaiming the House — an outcome that would immediately grind the GOP agenda to a halt, and plague President Trump with a series of investigations and hearings. And while taking back the Senate would be exceedingly difficult for Democrats, it's not out of the question.
When faced with the prospect of Republicans losing control of one or both houses of Congress, Trump's allies are reportedly trying to look on the bright side: If congressional Democrats impeach him, the country will view the effort as overreach and reward Trump with re-election in 2020, much as they punished Newt Gingrich's Republicans in 1998 over the Bill Clinton impeachment.
There are several assumptions baked into this Trumpian optimism — Democrats are certain to impeach him; a majority of Americans actually doesn't favor impeachment; and Special Counsel Robert Mueller will not discover any truly impeachable offenses. But I believe Trump is right about one thing: Having the opposition party in control of the legislature can be a nice asset for a president. Just ask the triangulator in chief, Bill Clinton, who successfully ran against the "Dole-Gingrich" Congress in 1996 and, more recently, Barack Obama, who, it can be argued, favorably contrasted himself against the zealous, crisis-manufacturing House Republicans.
But Trump stands to benefit even more than Clinton and Obama, because he might not contrast himself with Democrats. Instead, he might work with them.
Remember, Trump is capable of remorselessly ditching the conservative agenda. An anecdote found in Bob Woodward's book Fear: Trump in the White House suggests that Trump discussed with former economic adviser Gary Cohn the prospect of trading higher taxes for the rich for lower corporate taxes. According to Woodward, Cohn threw cold water on the idea: "Sir you can't take the top rate up. You just can't." "What do you mean?" Trump reportedly replied. Republicans who raise taxes will get "absolutely destroyed," Cohn said.
That calculus changes if the GOP loses the House and/or the Senate. Elected Republicans can "destroy" Trump for ideological apostasy because they have tremendous leverage over what legislation does or does not reach his desk. They shield him and his administration from congressional oversight. If they lose power in their own chambers, they lose a measure of it over Trump, too. With no cover on Capitol Hill, Trump becomes like Rocky Balboa at the conclusion of Rocky V when he's threatened with a lawsuit by a Don King-like fight promoter: "Touch me and I'll sue. Come on, punk. Touch me and I'll sue." To which Rocky, poor again, responds by socking the promoter and gloatingly asking: "Sue me for what?"
A President Trump without a Republican Congress is a President Trump with a lot less to lose. The GOP would no longer have much of anything to offer him or threaten him with.
So why not strike deals with the Democratic majority on, say, infrastructure or health care?
Such deals would be popular with a majority of the public that favors them on the merits and desperately wants to see relief from interminable congressional gridlock. Add legislative breakthroughs to favorable economic indicators, and you'd see Trump rise from the sloughs of his low-40 average approval ratings.
The other big reason Trump might be motivated to ditch the conservative economic and entitlement agenda is that it's fundamentally unpopular. Not even Republican voters themselves want to see it enacted. Instinctively, Trump probably knows this. His Electoral College majority was predicated on a swath of Rust Belt whites who hoped against hope that he was a different kind of Republican (and, yes, a more reliable bulwark against social and demographic change). Early this year, when it seemed like he was steadily gaining in popularity, Trump was finally free of the albatross of defending Ryan-McConnell turds like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He could talk about nothing but his favorite topics: the NFL, the threat of immigrants, and the strong economy.
Of course he ruined all that for himself in Helsinki and at the southern border, revealing anew both his cruelty and his sycophancy. Whatever momentum he had built up appears, at the moment, to have dissipated.
But there's a way he can recover it and, perhaps, save his presidency. If Republicans are, pace Gary Cohn, "absolutely destroyed" in November, and Robert Mueller doesn't land a clean blow, Trump will be free to start governing like a moderate.
Both he and the country may find it suits him just fine.