Very shortly, 2018 will be in the rearview mirror, but it was a political year like few others. So here’s a quick look back at the major political events that defined it.
The biggest political story of 2018
In a year chock-full of political highs and lows (mostly the latter), the defining moment of 2018 is the electoral rebirth of the Democratic Party. Democrats not only picked up 40 seats in the House of Representatives, minimized their losses in the Senate, and picked up several crucial statehouses, but the party received its largest popular vote advantage since 1974.
Beyond the numbers, Democrats shifted the country’s political terrain. They mobilized their base of supporters and made crucial and likely enduring inroads with female voters in suburban districts. They improved their standing, not just in places where they faltered in 2016 (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania), but in places where they haven’t done well in forever (Texas, Arizona, and Georgia). The Northeast and Far West are now overwhelmingly Democratic. With the exception of Ohio and Indiana, the Midwest looks increasingly blue.
Above all, the Democrats’ victory has finally placed a check on President Trump — and put Republicans on notice. Will the GOP keep carrying water for a president who, aside from his innumerable personal and political faults, has brought them mostly electoral pain since he took office?
Those Republicans in the reddest districts and states will likely stick with Trump. But other Republicans are now facing a difficult set of choices going into 2020. Enabling Trump will become harder as more news and indictments trickle out from the special counsel’s office — and the political consequences of continued complicity with his law-breaking increase. There are already some indications that Republicans are nervous about what might be coming.
At the end of the day, Democrats changed the nation’s political stakes. We’d be living in a very different — and far worse — America had they not.
Biggest Trump outrage
There is so much to choose from in this category (like the president being implicated in a federal crime or being revealed as a massive tax cheat), but when it comes to basic human decency — or lack thereof — it’s hard to think of anything in recent American history that compares to forcibly separating migrant children from their parents. Today, there are still thousands of migrant children being held by the Border Patrol — and children as young as 7 are dying in US custody. What is perhaps most troubling is that there were so many people inside of government willing to uphold this policy and so many outside willing to defend it. Of all the terrible things that this administration has done, this is the worst.
Biggest Democratic winners
It’s never too early to start speculating about the next presidential campaign, and two Democrats have positioned themselves best for 2020: California Senator Kamala Harris and outgoing Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke. There are other candidates with more support and greater name recognition (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden). But after the results in November, it feels as though a younger candidate may win over Democrats. In a very crowded field, both Harris and O’Rourke have created buzz around their potential candidacies that no other non-geriatric candidate has been able to achieve.
Biggest political high and biggest political low of 2018
The low is rather easy: the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. In pushing through his nomination to the Supreme Court, Republicans collectively thumbed their noses at women, the victims of sexual assault, Democrats, and the credibility of the Supreme Court. It was an exercise of pure partisan political power — consequences be damned — that fundamentally undercut the legitimacy of America’s core democratic institutions.
My favorite live political event of the year was the video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez realizing she had unseated incumbent Representative Joe Crowley. You don’t have to agree with Ocasio-Cortez’s politics to be charmed by her excitement and enthusiasm. In a difficult political year it was a stirring reminder that politics can still occasionally be hopeful, buoyant, and joyful.
In an ideal world we could look forward to more such positive events in 2019. But with plenty of shoes still to drop in the Russia investigation, as well as the president being increasingly unhinged, it feels like 2018 might be the calm before the real storm to come in 2019. Hold on tight, because this ride is going to get bumpier.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.