Anyone looking ahead to the 2020 presidential election before this last weekend almost certainly had a mental asterisk attached to her or his analysis based on the possibility that Robert Mueller’s investigation would produce something devastating to the presidency of Donald Trump. No one knew, of course, if it would represent an immediate threat to Trump’s tenure in office or simply a thumb on the scales against his reelection prospects. But the possibility that the Mueller report would leave Trump unscathed was a decidedly minority expectation (probably even among Republicans, despite all the public blustering about a “witch hunt”).
Now that it appears the Mueller report will supply, at best, thin gruel for those feeding on dreams of impeachment, and may at least temporarily quell discussion of presidential crimes, the question must be asked: Did the odds of Trump’s reelection actually just significantly rise?
That is certainly the spin being promoted by the president himself, who directly tied the release of Bill Barr’s summary of the Mueller report to his 2020 campaign slogan:
More objective analysts weren’t so sure:
There’s also the little matter of Trump’s habit of overplaying good news and hurting himself:
In a rare data-free observation, Nate Silver suggests that a Mueller whiff really just removes some scenarios that were potentially disastrous for Trump:
What we can say, however, is that a number of really bad outcomes have been removed from the table for Trump:
* There’s no previously unknown smoking gun linking Trump to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 campaign.
* Trump wasn’t indicted, and none of his family members were indicted.
* Trump didn’t pardon anyone before the investigation concluded.
*Trump didn’t fire Mueller.
Removing these extremely negative outcomes is a pretty big win for Trump. It isn’t quite the same as predicting that he’ll gain immediate political upside from the conclusion of the investigation; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if his approval rating goes up by a couple of percentage points, for instance, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t.
What this development almost certainly does mean, however, is a recalibration of both parties’ 2020 strategy and message. As my colleague Eric Levitz argues, the fizzling of the Mueller investigation (if that’s what we are in the process of witnessing) clears the way for Democrats to focus on more politically salient examples of presidential malfeasance:
Trump’s greatest vulnerability was never his supposed fealty to the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests, but rather, his actual fealty to the financial interests of himself, his family, and his economic class. The immediate victim of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party; the immediate victims of Trump’s documented tax-dodging efforts were middle-class taxpayers. The victims of his decision to outsource governance of the VA to his friends from Mar-a-Lago were American veterans. The victims of his administration’s gutting of consumer protection, environmental, and labor regulations are wide swathes of the American public. These latter, non-Russia scandals have always been more politically promising.
You could also argue that Democrats will now find it easier to stress policy differences with the president and his party. Even if Trump was (to consider a laughable hypothetical) a model of probity, his own policy agenda, his hostility to deeply held national values, his party’s deeply unpopular long-range goals, and his sheer recklessness would all make him vulnerable to a reelection defeat.
It should also not be forgotten that all the exultant raging from Trump and his supporters right now will free Democrats of any illusion that 2020 will be a cakewalk. With a Trump reelection now looking significantly more feasible than it did just last week, Democrats may begin considering in painful detail the catastrophic consequences of a second Trump term, and adjust the tone and conduct of their own nomination contest accordingly. The wolf is now most definitely at the door, howling in anticipation of a rich feast that his intended victims can no longer risk serving up via damaging internecine conflict.
For Team Trump, the Mueller Fizzle (again, if that’s what it is) reinforces the already central message to the president’s base that by dint of his destructive skills he is overcoming enormous odds to defy the arrogant elites who despise the sturdy Middle American virtues he is defending. A second Trump term, they will be told in a thousand explicit and implicit ways, could truly turn back the clock and restore the era of American Greatness before deracinated globalists and uppity feminists and minorities began to ruin everything. Conventional Republicans who have been quietly hedging their bets in the anticipation that Mueller might bring Trump down will now grit their teeth and commit themselves to their conqueror without reservation.
Now more than ever, 2020 will be a high-stakes battle of intensely motivated partisans representing different understandings of the American past and present and different visions of the country’s future, with the 45th president remaining an object of adoration for some and deep loathing for others. Robert Mueller did not, after all, provide an easy path out of the Trump presidency. The hard path, which will conclude either 19 months from now or an eternity later, is now likely unavoidable.