Trump passed the 'Barr exam,' but land mines remain for both parties

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE has passed the 'Barr exam.' By disseminating his four-page summary ahead of a release of the text of the report of Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE, Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP DOJ, Commerce slam House Dems contempt vote as 'political stunt' White House blasts 'shameful and cynical' Barr, Ross contempt vote MORE has framed the issues for the media and the American electorate, giving aid and comfort to Republicans, putting Democrats on the defensive, and allowing Trump to claim, falsely, as is his wont, that he was right all along about a witch hunt and has been “totally exonerated.”

Although legitimate questions remain unanswered and pressure for release of the entire report is likely to build, the majority of Americans are likely to accept Barr’s interpretation. All the more so, because it is now clear that no indictments will be issued for “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russians to influence the presidential election of 2016 — or for obstruction of justice. It should be equally clear that President Trump will not be impeached and removed from office.

That said, the road ahead is filled with land mines for officials and activists in both parties.  As they prepare for the election of 2020, they need to find ways to keep their bases energized and attract Independent voters by moving on.

ADVERTISEMENT

To that end, Democrats should limit their investigations to avoid accusations that they are re-litigating Mueller. They can and should, however, examine allegations about the misuse of funds raised by the Trump Inauguration Committee. They can and should launch inquiries related to the handling of asylum seekers at the border and the insertion of a citizenship question into the U.S. Census; and highlight corruption in a Trump administration that promised to “drain the swamp” by documenting ethics violations by Cabinet officials and heads of agencies.

They should, in my judgment, leave investigations of money laundering and tax fraud in the Trump Organization to state and federal prosecutors.

Most important, Democrats in the House of Representatives should demonstrate that they are doing “the people’s business” by holding hearings and passing bills on medical care, infrastructure, immigration, taxes, the environment, the opioid crisis, the minimum wage, and access to higher education, even if they expect the U.S. Senate to reject them.

Republicans should press President Trump to confine his gloating to a few more tweets. They should urge him not to pardon Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortWebb: Questions for Robert Mueller Top Mueller prosecutor Zainab Ahmad joins law firm Gibson Dunn Russian oligarch's story could spell trouble for Team Mueller MORE and Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneJudge finds Stone violated gag order, blocks him from using social media Counterprotesters outnumber far-right extremists at DC rally Judge orders Roger Stone to file rebuttal to allegation he violated gag order MORE. Trump may well argue that because Manafort and Stone were ensnared in a partisan “witch hunt,” they do not deserve to go to jail for actions unrelated to collusion with Russia. Pardons for these two unsavory characters, however, are more likely to turn off Independent voters than further energize an already energized Republican base. Most important, Republicans should try to prevent President Trump from ordering Justice Department officials to investigate “crimes” by Democrats.

Democrats and Republicans should remind themselves of these fundamental facts about American politics:

1) The electorate is divided as follows: about 29 percent of voters identify as Democrats; 27 percent as Republicans; about 40 percent as Independents. Turning out the base is important, but will not, in and of itself, get a candidate over the top. President Trump prevailed in 2016 — and Democrats gained almost 40 seats in the House of Representatives in 2018 — because they attracted a majority of Independent voters. 

2) Most Americans have short attention spans, pay little attention to the details of policies, and loathe politicians. 

3) The presidential election of 2020 may well be decided, as have so many contests, by the state of the economy 9-12 months ahead of Election Day — and, by the answer of voters to the right-track/wrong-track question posed by Ronald Reagan in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago.”

There is good reason to doubt whether allegations of “collusion,” “obstruction of justice,” and/or “witch hunts” will play a pivotal role in the election of 2020. With an approval rate that remains between 38 and 42 percent, President Trump has his work cut out for him. So do Democrats, who have a track record of rarely missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, and the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.