GOP optimism for 2020 was premature

GOP optimism for 2020 was premature
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Over the past several weeks Republicans were feeling good — especially about the 2020 election. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE, they claimed, escaped the Mueller probe unscathed, the economy is humming, and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' Sunday shows preview: Democratic candidates make the rounds after debate MORE (I-Vt.) is dominating the Democrats' presidential agenda.

Today, on each count, this optimism looks premature. 

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The president's high-water mark on the special counsel's investigation into his ties to Russians was on March 24 when he falsely claimed he was "totally exonerated" following Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump Justice OIG completes probe on FBI surveillance of ex-Trump campaign aide MORE’s enabling “summary” memo.

The actual report is devastating in detailing the president's sleazy conduct, and the contrary spin has failed. This was driven home when the Washington Post and New York Times disclosed that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal MORE wrote the attorney general taking issue with his initial characterization of the report.

Congressional inquiries may produce more revelations, as may the trial of the nefarious Roger StoneRoger Jason Stone3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Judge rejects Stone's request to dismiss charges Judge dismisses DNC lawsuit against Trump campaign, Russia over election interference MORE, a longtime Trump political confidant. There could be more charges brought by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan.

The bottom line: The president, who according to Justice Department guidelines can't be indicted while in office, may have dodged the biggest bullet, but the fallout will continue to haunt both him and the Republican Party.

The economy, with robust growth, a soaring stock market and a jobless rate under 4 percent, looks terrific. Yet many Americans know that the 2017 tax cuts were skewed to the wealthy, that their wages are barely keeping pace, and that cutbacks in areas like health care would hurt them. Tellingly, a 2020 Trump political operative told Fox News that economic data matters less than how "average Americans feel." There is little of the "Morning in America" feel. Moreover, the president's style and character overshadow even the good grades he gets on the economy.

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While conditions may be as bad or worse for the struggling middle-aged white voters in West Virginia, they're likely going to stick with Trump, who’s against the media, the elites, “the swamp” and anyone they don't like. However, the president can't count on those good job numbers to retain blue states that defected to him last time. Trump recently bragged that the Pennsylvania unemployment rate has dropped to 3.9 percent. Joblessness has plummeted in Michigan too, and is down to 2.9 percent in Wisconsin. But the numbers were similarly bright six months ago when those three states elected Democratic governors (two that had been held by Republicans) and took over five GOP House seats. As of today, Democrats would be clear 2020 favorites in Michigan and Pennsylvania with a slight edge in Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, Democrats won a special state assembly election in a middle-class suburban district, outperforming the GOP's usual showing there. Special elections this year have cut both ways — but importantly, Democrats are solidifying their gains in the suburbs.

Republicans argued that their ace-in-the-hole, as much as Mueller and the economy, was the left-wing domination of the Democratic presidential race, with Democrats embracing issues like government-run, single-payer health care. Republicans were salivating over the prospect of running ads charging that Democrats want to take away your choice of a health insurance plan and turn it over to the government.

But the pure single-payer scheme is losing steam. California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Gun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' MORE now says she would let people keep their private plan, while expanding the public role; others, like South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegO'Rourke responds to Buttigieg's gun criticism: 'That calculation and fear is what got us here in the first place' Buttigieg: Biden gave 'bad' debate answer on slavery's legacy O'Rourke's debate moment reignites gun debate on Sunday shows MORE, say universal coverage is a goal, that the task now is to build on ObamaCare and cost controls, especially drug prices. This would put Republicans back on the defensive.

Rivals have also become less reticent to take on Sanders. A few weeks ago the Vermont socialist said prisoners, not just ex-felons, should be allowed to vote — even those who committed heinous crimes. New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, on PBS Newshour, criticized Sanders for wanting "to get involved in a conversation about whether Dylann Roof or the Marathon bomber should have the right to vote." Roof is the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church, and the two Boston Marathon bombers killed three bystanders and wounded hundreds more. Both Roof and the surviving bomber are in prison.

Since Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden bemoans white supremacy in remarks at civil rights movement site Gun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Sunday shows - Guns dominate after Democratic debate MORE entered the race, Sanders has slipped markedly in polls, which probably says less about Biden than the lack of breadth of Sanders support.

For Republicans, that's not good news.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.