Marvin, What Do We Do Now?
As happened a month ago at the conclusion of the Mueller investigation, I once again think it is worthwhile to diverge somewhat from the main approach of this site, which is to do deeper dives on politics and government that go beyond the week’s news, and focus on what is on everyone’s minds today. As I noted then, at times, the news of the week and an exploration of underlying political dynamics converge.
The classic 1972 movie “The Candidate” famously concludes with Robert Redford’s eponymous candidate sitting down after an election and asking his campaign manager “Marvin, what do we do now?” There are rarely easy answers to that question in politics, especially after watershed moments, and Democrats are stuck with a version of it now in the wake of the release of the redacted Mueller Report. They seem to have mostly decided that impeachment is the wrong course, and that is the right conclusion for what they shouldn’t do…but at this point, what things should they do?
I’d like to suggest four:
“The Mueller report makes unmistakably clear that Americans were attacked by foreign military units: specifically Russian ‘Military Units 26165 and 74455.’ And it reminds us that the president and members of his campaign invited and welcomed those attacks, even if it did not arrange them …If the attack were a bombing rather than a hacking, perhaps the magnitude of the problem would be clearer.”
For Democrats, the obstruction narrative will remain tantalizing. It is a story that has played out partly in public view, in the President’s own words, and presents a juicy set of lies and betrayals that are almost irresistible press bait.
They should resist temptation. Instead, keep the focus on the Russia attack. At the end of the day, the obstruction story is murky: getting ultimately to Donald Trump’s state of mind (good luck on that one) and whether he would have obstructed justice if his staff had followed his orders, which they often didn’t. Americans already know full well that Donald Trump operates this way. Litigating the details won’t change the political dynamic – it will just play as Democrats trying to score more points off a soap opera of clumsy obfuscation, or as John Oliver calls it, “Stupid Watergate.”
The Russian attack is clear, serious, and demands a future course of preventive action. It makes many Republicans deeply uncomfortable. By making the issue about protecting our country in the future –something that all Americans should care about – Democrats have a far better chance of getting traction both politically and for critical steps to head off the brewing follow-up attack.
Finally, Democrats should be cautious about who the villain in their story is, because every good story has one. In the Democrats’ obstruction story the villain is just Donald Trump, which is why it inevitably devolves into more your-team-against-my-team trench warfare over one of the most divisive figures in American political history. In the Russian attack, the villain is ultimately Russia, and hence offers the prospect of drawing more Americans into unity against a common foe.
2) Focus on the screen, not the page: What has happened in the last four weeks is mostly prologue; it is the coming few weeks that will be most critical to the impression that cements itself in the minds of most Americans. Trump allies will keep pushing his “Game Over” meme: no collusion, no obstruction. In fact, having gotten a favorable memo from the Attorney General and some newspaper headlines, they think they’ve already won on this. They haven’t: almost 2/3 of America thinks the report was inconclusive or that they don’t know enough to say yet. So it is still a very open question what Americans will take away from the investigation, and it’s a lot easier to be glibly dismissive over tangled newspaper articles and “explainers” of a 448 page report than over video.
In the next month, Democrats may have a chance to get both Attorney General Barr and Robert Mueller to testify on camera. Now, it’s no great insight that any televised hearings will be big news…but images do matter a lot more than written words these days, so those events will likely do a lot more to crystallize opinion. Democrats should seek every opportunity to have Barr (who will be spinning) and Mueller (who will be cautious) read verbatim from the Mueller report. Democrats have rightly noted that there are heaps of critical points that the Attorney General has glossed over or flat-out misrepresented in the last month. By creating the visual of Mueller and Barr delivering the actual words of the report, Democrats can much more powerfully drive home the key fact here: we were attacked, and our President was on the side of our enemies…and still seems reluctant to stop them.
3) Double down on the hard stuff: As I argued last week, Democrats will be drawn to over-the-top election and government reform proposals to motivate their base, but should discipline themselves to focus on the real blocking and tackling of expanding voting, protecting elections, and fixing government institutions. These steps aren’t easy, but they are achievable, they matter, they are politically potent, and they form a far greater basis for a just, fair American democratic system in the future than pursuing every last rivulet of the Trump case. Democrats should commit themselves to the hard work of fixing the gears of democracy.
4) Stick to a tagline, then pivot: All of which leads to the final point, which is that hard as it will be to let this go, Democrats don’t want to spend the next 18 months re-fighting the battle of “did he or didn’t he?” Again, most Americans have made up their minds on whether they basically like Donald Trump or not, and a fight that mostly riles Republicans into protecting their party is not a sound strategic direction to take. The goal for Democrats in the coming months and beyond is to nail down a succinct summary of the Mueller investigation in the minds of the American public, and then pivot to the future. True, Democrats have a notoriously mixed record on developing taglines, but as we move into the main portion of the 2020 election cycle, the objective when it comes to the Mueller investigation should be to sum up the core issue that Russia attacked us and Trump was on their side, and then move to how Democrats plan to protect our country and strengthen our way of life in the future. Don’t make it an ongoing attack on Republicans’ political tribe – make it a case for how we can move forward together.
It is a terrible thing that our country was attacked and that our President tried to cover up instead of fight back. We now have a deep assessment of exactly what happened. To try to manifest anything constructive from this experience, for their party and for our country, Democrats must be strategic and focused in the months ahead.