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 TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE, they claimed, escaped the Mueller probe unscathed, the economy is humming, and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced 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 BarrDemocrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question The Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations EXCLUSIVE: Trump declines to say he has confidence in FBI director 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 MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report 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 StoneJudge orders Roger Stone to file rebuttal to allegation he violated gag order Federal prosecutors allege Roger Stone violated gag order with Instagram posts House panel subpoenas Flynn, Gates 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 HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced 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 ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced 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 BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced 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.