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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage 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 MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network MORE, Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBarr bemoans 'moral upheaval' that has brought 'suffering and misery' Trump threatens to sue Schiff and Pelosi Democratic lawmaker says Barr's reported meeting with Murdoch should be investigated 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.

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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 ManafortRand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter He who must not be named: How Hunter Biden became a conversation-stopper Schiff should consider using RICO framework to organize impeachment MORE and Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneMeet Trump's most trusted pollsters 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Judge rejects Stone's request to dismiss charges 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.