Despite reclaiming the House of Representatives from Donald Trump‘s Republicans on Tuesday, the Democratic Party still faces an existential dilemma that will shape both how it prepares for the 2020 presidential campaign and how the party tackles the looming responses expected from Trump to any obstruction.
“The politics of the next presidential election begin today,” said Roland Paris, an associate professor of foreign policy at the University of Ottawa.
While the midterm elections boiled down to a referendum on Trump himself, the next two years will force the Democrats to take a critical eye to their own party and in particular, whether they want to be seen as a party defined by their opposition or by their vision in terms of real policy alternatives.
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How and when to oppose Trump will be a major question for the Democrats in that context.
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And given the president’s mercurial and combative nature, it isn’t clear yet how he will respond to concrete opposition to his policies.
“This would be very different for President Trump. He would face for the first time an energized, competing centre of power in the form of a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and it’s hard to know how he would react to that because he hasn’t faced that situation before,” Paris explained.
“On the other hand, he’s more tactical than strategic and he responds to shifting circumstances, sometimes very unpredictably. I would think there would be some initiative from the Democratic House leadership to demonstrate they are not just about obstructing, they are about governing.”
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Since the party’s defeat in the 2016 campaign, Democrats have been facing tough questions about where the future of their party lies.
In short, does the path to a 2020 victory run along the far left or closer to the centre of the political spectrum?
Already, underdog socialist candidates have scored major upsets against more traditional Democrat candidates.
Most notably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley earlier this year and her victory quickly sparked speculation that it was evidence of a generational divide between older and younger Democrats grappling with where the party should go next in response to the populist wave that sent Trump to the White House.
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However, the question is also whether a harder turn to the left could alienate centrist voters.
That will be a dilemma the party needs to face down as it decides how best to use the next two years in control of the House of Representatives to its advantage.
Key among the issues that could face the party will be how to react if a third Supreme Court vacancy comes up during Trump’s third and fourth years, given the tight margin of Republican control of the Senate and the 33 Senate seats up for re-election in 2020 that could face steep political pressure from their constituents to not further tilt the court.
Such an opening would further cement the conservative leanings of the court, already tilted significantly with the confirmation of controversial judge Brett Kavanaugh last month — a major concern for Democratic voters given the very real risk a conservative court will overturn the landmark abortion rights ruling, Roe v. Wade.
“My bet is if something happens in the third year and he picks somebody, the Democrats may choose to drag it out but I’m not sure that would happen the way Republicans did in the last year of Obama, around the Scalia seat that they nominated Merrick Garland for,” speculated Colin Robertson, vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“It is possible but that’s a question mark. The Democrats would then have to do what they were so bitter about the Republicans doing, and they may choose to in turn do that. Hypocrisy is not something that bothers either party.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016 and former U.S. president Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland as his replacement in March 2016.
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Republicans, however, had won control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2014 midterms and refused to confirm Garland, whose appointment would have tilted the court to the left from the tied 4-4 balance between conservative and progressive justices remaining after Scalia’s death.
By refusing to confirm Garland for the entire last year of Obama’s presidency, the Republicans were accused of stealing the nomination, which fell to Trump to fill shortly after his inauguration with Justice Neil Gorsuch.
One thing that is unlikely to change despite the shift in power from the midterms is the president’s rhetoric towards those who oppose him.
And that means one core thing for the 2020 campaign, said Robertson.
“I think he’ll run against Congress, which is what presidents often do when they’ve got a divided House,” he said.
“He’ll blame the Democrats for everything that goes wrong, if they’re in control of the House. That’s a tried and true formula.”
The 2020 U.S. presidential election is scheduled for Nov. 3.
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