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With headlines touting a "massive victory" for President Trump, the attorney general's letter interpreting special counsel Robert Mueller's report has thrown Democrats into a funk. But our party faithful should turn those frowns upside down: the Mueller report is good news.
First, we were never going to rid the Trump White House this way. While the Democratic House could well pass articles of impeachment, his removal would require the votes of at least 20 Republican Senators. Consider their supine response to the daily barrage of Trump outrages. It's impossible to imagine them taking a step as bold as removing, for the first time ever, the president of the United States.
If the Mueller report included evidence of a Trump conspiracy with Russia or clear criminal obstruction of justice, it would have been impossible for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to rein-in calls for impeachment. Now Pelosi, who is clearly skeptical of the political wisdom of impeachment, can keep House Democrats focused on the economic message that won them the majority and on the other defining problems of our age, like the climate crisis, immigration and reform of our electoral system.
Second, the Russia investigation is being largely ignored outside the precincts of cable news and political Twitter. Most people couldn't pick Mueller out of a lineup, much less know the details of Carter Page's interactions with Russians in a London bar. So, while many national Democrats thought Mueller was set to deliver a knockout blow to Trump, they are conflating their own obsession with the details of the investigation with its actual political salience.
Let me be clear: I am one of those obsessives. We need to see what's in Mueller's report to determine whether, for example, there is evidence of collusion that stops just short of indictable behavior. Moreover, the criminal convictions of scores of Trump's aides, his public comments, his shady financial dealings and his bizarre bromance with Vladimir Putin all suggest something deeply sinister. But many voters do not share that view: 45 percent of Americans said that the investigation was "politically motivated."
Related video: Trump: Mueller report ‘could not have been better’ (Video by The Washington Post)
- The man who led the Russia investigationRobert Mueller was appointed to conduct the Russia investigation as special counsel.CNN
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That's why almost no Democrat who won in the 2018 midterms spent any time focused on the Russia investigation. Those candidates understood that Russia was not breaking through; voters cared more about losing insurance coverage for their preexisting condition than about cable news coverage of the Mueller probe.
Indeed, a pre-election survey by Gallup put health care at the top of voters' concerns - the Russia probe was 12th.
Third, concluding this phase of the investigation allows a rebalance of the political debate. Trump's base, roughly one-third of the electorate, would have always believed in his innocence, regardless of Mueller's findings. Another third of voters already loathes Trump and was looking to Mueller to justify their suspicions. Low-propensity Democratic voters, those who stayed home in 2016, would pay little attention. But swing voters - those who went from Obama to Trump - could easily have concluded that this was an illegitimate effort to reverse the verdict of 2016.
President Clinton was impeached by the House in 1998, and the Senate failed to remove him in 1999, as his approval rating soared to a staggering 73 percent. There's little doubt that Clinton got a boost from a perception that he had been treated unfairly by a partisan Congress, and Trump might have been able to get one, too.
That said - and leaving aside the vast difference in the magnitude of their alleged misdeeds - the public's embrace of Clinton after impeachment was based mostly on his performance as president. The economy was booming, the world was relatively peaceful, our budget was in surplus, and the public could see the president working hard to make life better for all Americans.
By contrast, Trump is terrible at his job. He has made big problems worse, bringing cruelty to our immigration system, denial to the climate crisis, and racism, congenital lying, and bullying to our political discourse. He has scoffed at our allies, launched pointless trade wars, and empowered our enemies. He has presided over an economy that doesn't work for most Americans, who face health care costs that are too high, good jobs that are too scarce and a future that is too uncertain.
If 2020 Democrats spend most of their time talking about how we can turn that around and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to earn a good life where they live, they will beat Trump the old-fashioned way: at the ballot box.
Yes, Democrats are right to demand that the Mueller report be made public. And yes, House Democrats should continue to investigate allegations of foreign influence and obstruction. But no, the failure of Mueller to label Trump a criminal was not a blow to Democrats. In fact, it might have been the perfect outcome to help ensure Trump's departure from office on January 20, 2021.
Matt Bennett is an executive vice president of centrist Democratic group Third Way. He served as a deputy assistant to the president in the Clinton White House and also worked on both of Bill Clinton presidential campaigns. Follow Bennet on Twitter at @ThirdWayMattB.