Mueller re­port will push can­di­dates to fo­cus on is­sues

With con­clu­sion of probe, Democrats get a chance to again fo­cus on kitchen ta­ble cam­paigns that helped them take back the House in midterm elec­tions.

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Jonathan Martin

The con­clu­sion by the spe­cial coun­sel that Pres­i­dent Trump did not con­spire with Rus­sia all but as­sures that Trump’s po­lit­i­cal fate will be de­ter­mined at the bal­lot box next year – in­ten­si­fy­ing pres­sure on Democrats to set­tle on a can­di­date and a pol­icy agenda that of­fers them the best chance to de­feat the pres­i­dent.

With House Democrats now far less likely to im­peach Trump, and Se­nate Repub­li­cans cer­tain to re­sist re­mov­ing him if they did, the 2020 race will re­volve more around his per­for­mance in of­fice than how he won in the first place.

That may dis­ap­point some Democrats, who be­lieve that the Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence on Trump’s be­half in the 2016 race makes his pres­i­dency il­le­git­i­mate. But it of­fers the party a chance to oust him through demo­cratic means that would be harder to dis­pute, rather than the di­vi­sive tac­tic of im­peach­ment.

So far, the re­sponse of most of the can­di­dates to the Mueller re­port has been to de­mand that At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr re­lease the doc­u­ment in full. But some top Democrats are urg­ing them to move past the re­port and in­stead fo­cus on the prom­ises they say he has failed to keep, and high­light their dif­fer­ences with the pres­i­dent on is­sues like im­mi­gra­tion, tax pol­icy and health care.

“Democrats should not fo­cus too much on Mueller,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago said. Point­ing to signs in the mar­ket that the econ­omy is soft­en­ing, he added, “The flash­ing yel­low light in front of this pres­i­dent is the bond mar­ket and the prospect of a re­ces­sion.”

The 2020 hope­fuls may not need much con­vinc­ing. On the cam­paign trail, few of the top-tier Demo­cratic can­di­dates spend much time in­veigh­ing about Trump’s links to Rus­sia.

“I hope this mo­ti­vates all of us to stay fo­cused on the is­sues that re­ally im­pact our lives in the ev­ery­day,” Mayor Pete But­tigieg of South Bend, Ind., said in an in­ter­view on MSNBC on Sun­day, ad­ding that “part of how we lost our way in 2016 was it was much too much about him and it left a lot of peo­ple back home say­ing, ‘OK, but no­body’s talk­ing about me.’ ”

But many of the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates had sidestepped ques­tions about im­peach­ment by point­ing to the Mueller in­quiry and the need to wait for its re­sults. And that stalling tac­tic is no longer an op­tion.

If they now re­ject im­peach­ment, that could alien­ate some in their ac­tivist base who are out­raged by Trump’s poli­cies and his deeply po­lar­iz­ing be­hav­ior. But to con­tinue to push for a se­ries of in­quiries could ir­ri­tate gen­eral elec­tion vot­ers who loathe Wash­ing­ton dys­func­tion.

Repub­li­cans moved swiftly Sun­day to por­tray Democrats as un­re­lent­ing Javerts hunt­ing their Jean Val­jean, a mes­sage that is likely to be­come cen­tral to Trump’s ef­forts to fur­ther so­lid­ify his base over the 19 months lead­ing to the elec­tion.

“Now Democrats are say­ing the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion wasn’t enough and that they must con­tinue their base­less fish­ing ex­pe­di­tions in Con­gress,” said Steve Guest, a spokesman for the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee.

The good news for the Demo­cratic con­tenders is that most of the party’s vot­ers have not made im­peach­ment a lit­mus test: Even af­ter Mueller de­liv­ered the re­port to Barr on Fri­day, few ac­tivists con­fronted the can­di­dates at week­end ap­pear­ances with ques­tions about Rus­sia.

With Democrats win­ning back a foothold of power by cap­tur­ing the House last year, en­thu­si­asm for im­peach­ing Trump has ebbed. A re­cent CNN sur­vey found that 36 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port im­peach­ing and re­mov­ing the pres­i­dent from of­fice, with Demo­cratic sup­port fall­ing to 68 per­cent from 80 per­cent in the months since the midterm elec­tions.

What has been top of mind for the party’s rank-and-file is find­ing a can­di­date who can de­feat Trump. And the per­cep­tion of vi­a­bil­ity will be­come only more of a coveted at­tribute now that the pres­i­dent heads into his re­elec­tion cam­paign with poor ap­proval rat­ings but cleared of col­lud­ing with a for­eign ad­ver­sary, an al­le­ga­tion that had clouded his ad­min­is­tra­tion for al­most two years.

“I think most Democrats be­lieved yes­ter­day and they do to­day that Trump will be on the bal­lot and that he will be for­mi­da­ble,” said David Axelrod, the Demo­cratic strate­gist.

Demo­cratic strate­gists were not com­pletely dis­ap­pointed to see the Mueller in­quiry come to an end, even if it de­nied them a po­lit­i­cal weapon. They now hope lib­eral ac­tivists, and law­mak­ers, will of­fer party lead­ers the lat­i­tude to pivot to a more broadly ap­peal­ing mes­sage that can win over some of the vot­ers who only re­luc­tantly sup­ported Trump in 2016.

“Con­gress should ab­so­lutely ful­fill its over­sight role by in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pres­i­dent’s wrong­do­ing, but we also have to pros­e­cute the eco­nomic case against him,” said Stephanie Cut­ter, a top aide in for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s re-elec­tion. “Mid­dle-class peo­ple are pay­ing more in taxes to­day be­cause of Trump’s tax bill and lost jobs be­cause of an ego­tis­ti­cal trade war. He dou­bled our debt and wasted money on a wall. Amer­ica is not greater to­day than it was when he took of­fice. We need to tell that story, too.”

Demo­cratic of­fi­cials be­lieve there is an ob­vi­ous model: the sort of kitchen ta­ble cam­paigns that brought the party so much suc­cess in last year’s midterm elec­tions.

“We’ve got to run cam­paigns on health care and taxes and beat Trump on the is­sues,” said Anne Caprara, who steered Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illi­nois to vic­tory last year.

Caprara said that what helped Trump in 2016 was the per­cep­tion that he was an out­sider who would dis­rupt the sta­tus quo in a self-deal­ing cap­i­tal and re­vive man­u­fac­tur­ing in the Mid­west.

“Well, he is a typ­i­cal politi­cian: He didn’t drain the swamp and he didn’t bring back the jobs,” she said.

Trump may en­joy a short-term lift from the con­clu­sion of the re­port. It will cer­tainly draw his own po­lit­i­cal base even closer to him, af­firm­ing in their minds that he was the vic­tim of overzeal­ous Democrats bent on un­der­min­ing his pres­i­dency. The White House press of­fice pushed that mes­sage ag­gres­sively Sun­day night, say­ing that Democrats had “slan­dered” Trump and that “this should never again hap­pen to an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent.”

But while the deep­en­ing bond be­tween con­ser­va­tive vot­ers and Trump will so­lid­ify his po­lit­i­cal foun­da­tion, it will make it more dif­fi­cult for Repub­li­cans in heav­ily sub­ur­ban states and dis­tricts to separate them­selves from the pres­i­dent next year.

Trump may have a firmer grip on con­ser­va­tives, but he and his party are still sad­dled with the same prob­lem that weighed them down when Democrats picked up 40 seats to gain a ma­jor­ity in the House: the up-for­grabs vot­ers who de­cide elec­tions can­not abide his in­cen­di­ary con­duct.

And that view will re­main fixed so long as the pres­i­dent keeps act­ing in ways that turn off the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter, no mat­ter the con­clu­sion of the Mueller re­port or any of the other in­quiries swirling around Trump’s pres­i­dency.

“To­mor­row he could call a 5-yearold a curse word,” Caprara said, “and we’d be onto a new news cy­cle.”

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