Imagine for a moment that special counsel Robert Mueller is unable to establish direct and intentional collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Or, suppose he proves collusion by a few former campaign aides but finds nothing directly implicating the president himself. In either event—or in just about any other imaginable scenario—it seems improbable that Congress will have the votes to impeach Trump or otherwise hold him accountable prior to 2020. If Mueller’s probe drags on and fails to produce a “smoking gun,” the whole affair may end up seeming so complex, muddy, and partisan that most of the public would prefer to move on, eager to talk about something else.
In other words, Russiagate could well continue to distract and infuriate Trump without breaking his hold on power.
Is it shocking to think evidence of Russian chicanery could be shrugged off? Don’t be shocked. After all, the last major case of foreign meddling and collusion in a U.S. presidential race didn’t exactly end up rocking the republic.
In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole decided to take a hard line on China—portraying the nation as a growing economic and geopolitical threat to the United States and a violator of international rules and norms. In response, China tried to leverage its extensive diplomatic, intelligence, and financial networks in the United States in order to sway the election in favor of Dole’s rival, Democrat Bill Clinton.
This is not a theory, it is historical fact: there was a major Congressional investigation. In the end, several prominent Democratic fundraisers, including close Clinton associates, were found to be complicit in the Chinese meddling efforts and pled guilty to various charges of violating campaign finance and disclosure laws (most notably James T. Riady, Johnny Chung, John Huang, and Charlie Trie). Several others fled the country to escape U.S. jurisdiction as the probe got underway. The Democratic National Committee was forced to return millions of dollars in ill-gotten funds (although by that point, of course, their candidate had already won).
It was a scandal that persisted after the election in no small part because many of Clinton’s own policies in his second term seemed to lend credence to insinuations of collusion.
Several prominent Democratic fundraisers, including close Clinton associates, were found to be complicit in Chinese meddling efforts and pled guilty to campaign finance violations.
Rather than attempting to punish the meddling country for undermining the bedrock of our democracy, Bill Clinton worked to ease sanctions and normalize relations with Beijing—even as the U.S. ratcheted up sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Iraq. By the end of his term, he signed a series of sweeping trade deals that radically expanded China’s economic and geopolitical clout—even though some in his administration forecast that this would come at the expense of key American industries and U.S. manufacturing workers.
Clinton authorized a series of controversial defense contracts with China as well—despite Department of Justice objections. Federal investigators were concerned that the contractors seemed to be passing highly sensitive and classified information to the Chinese. And indeed, the companies in question were eventually found to have violated the law by giving cutting-edge missile technology to China, and paid unprecedented fines related to the Arms Export Control Act during the administration of George W. Bush. But they were inexplicably approved in the Bill Clinton years.
For a while, polls showed that the public found the president’s posture on China to be so disconcerting that most supported appointing an independent counsel (a la Mueller) to investigate whether the Clinton Administration had essentially been “bought.”
Law enforcement officials shared these concerns: FBI director Louis Freeh (whom Clinton could not get rid of, having just fired his predecessor) publically called for the appointment of an independent counsel. So did the chief prosecutor charged with investigating Chinese meddling, Charles La Bella. However, they were blocked at every turn by Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno—eventually leading La Bella to resign in protest of the AG’s apparent obstruction.
The 1996 Chinese collusion story, much like the 2016 Russian collusion story, dragged on for nearly two years—hounding Clinton at every turn. That is, until it was discovered that the president had been having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The 1996 Chinese collusion story dragged on for nearly two years—hounding Clinton at every turn. That is, until the Monica Lewinsky scandal came along.
This was Bill Clinton’s second known extra-marital affair with a subordinate: in the lead-up to his 1992 election it was also discovered that Clinton had been involved in a long-running affair with Gennifer Flowers—an employee of the State of Arkansas during Bill’s governorship there, appointed as a result of Clinton’s intercession on her behalf.
The drama of the inquiry into Bill Clinton’s myriad alleged sexual improprieties, the President’s invocation of executive privilege to prevent his aides from having to testify against him, Clinton’s perjury, subsequent impeachment by the House, acquittal in the Senate, and eventual plea-bargain deal —these sucked the oxygen away from virtually all other stories related to the president.
Indeed, few today seem to remember that the Chinese meddling occurred at all. This despite continuing China-related financial improprieties involving both the Clintons and the DNC Chairman who presided over the 1996 debacle, Terry McAuliffe—and despite the fact that the intended target of the current foreign meddling attempt just so happens to be married to the intended beneficiary of the last.
And the irony in this, of course, is that not only do we find ourselves reliving an apparently ill-fated collusion investigation, but the foreign meddling story is once again competing with a presidential sex scandal—this time involving actual porn stars. (Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones both posed for Penthouse after their involvement with Clinton surfaced. Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal are well-established in the industry.)
Much like Bill Clinton, our current president has a long pattern of accusations of infidelity, sexual harassment and even assault. However all of Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct incidents occurred before he’d assumed any public office. Therefore, although some Democrats hope to provide Trump’s accusers an opportunity to testify before Congress if their party manages to retake the House in 2018, the legal impact of these accounts is likely to be nil. The political significance of such theater is likely being overestimated as well.
The danger for Democrats in all this is that they could get lulled into the notion that Trump’s liabilities—the Mueller probe, the alleged affairs, and whatever new scandals and outrages Trump generates in the next two years—will be sufficient to energize and mobilize their base in 2020. Democratic insiders and fatcats are likely to think they can put forward the same sort of unpalatable candidate and platform they did last cycle—only this time, they’ll win! A strong showing in 2018 could even reinforce this sense of complacency—leading to another debacle in the race for the White House in 2020.
Democrats consistently snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by believing they’ve got some kind of lock. Remember the “Emerging Democratic Majority” thesis? Remember Hillary Clinton’s alleged 2016 “Electoral Firewall?” What have the Democrats learned from 2016? The answer is, very little if they believe the essential problem was just James Comey and the Russians.
Here’s one lesson Democrats would do well to internalize:
The party has won by running charismatic people against Republican cornflake candidates (see Clinton v. Bush I or Dole, or Obama v. McCain or Romney). Yet whenever Democrats find themselves squaring off against a faux-populist who plays to voters’ base instincts, the party always make the same move: running a wonky technocrat with an impressive resume, detailed policy proposals, and little else.
Does it succeed in drawing a sharp contrast? Pretty much always. Does it succeed at winning the White House? Pretty much never: Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and now Clinton.
Democrats could be headed for trouble if they are counting on the Mueller investigation to bring Trump down.
Democrats rely heavily on irregular voters to win elections; negative partisanship races tend to depress turnout for these constituents. More broadly, if left with a choice between a “lesser of two evils” the public tends to stick with the “devil they know.” In short: precisely what Democrats don’t need in 2020 is a negative partisanship race.
A referendum on Trump might not play out the way Democrats expect. Against all odds, it looks like the president will even have an actual record to run on. He should not be underestimated.
Clinton-style triangulation is also likely to backfire. Contemporary research suggests there just aren’t a lot of “floating voters” up for grabs these days. Rather than winning over disaffected Republicans, this approach would likely just alienate the Democratic base.
The party’s best bet is to instead focus on mobilizing the left by articulating a compelling positive message for why Americans should vote for them (rather than just against Trump). They will need to respond to Trump with a populist of their own—someone who can credibly appeal to people in former Obama districts that Hillary Clinton lost. And they need to activate those who sat the last election out— for instance by delivering for elements of their base that the party has largely taken for granted in recent cycles.
If the Democratic National Committee wants to spend its time talking about Russia and sex scandals instead of tending to these priorities, then we should all brace for another humiliating “black swan” defeat for the party in 2020.
But, you say, isn’t Trump the least popular president ever after one year in office? Guess whose year-one (un)popularity is closest to Trump’s? Ronald Reagan. He was under 50 percent in approval ratings at the end of his first year; but he went on to win reelection in an historic landslide. Barack Obama was barely breaking even after year one but won reelection comfortably. Bill Clinton was only slightly above 50 percent after his first year.
You know who else had the lowest approval rating in a quarter-century after Trump’s first year in office? The Democratic Party.