Why Mueller's report won't matter much in 2020

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Pete Buttigieg, Robert Mueller and Elizabeth Warren (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Washington is bracing today for the latest, long-awaited chapter in the two-year saga of Russian influence and the Trump campaign. The Mueller report, when at last it comes, may be so heavily redacted that it ends up leading to more intrigue than it puts to rest, along with a raft of lawsuits and subpoenas.

What the report won’t do, I’m betting, is have much impact, one way or the other, on the 2020 presidential campaign. Most Americans seem to have decided already whether they think Donald Trump is culpable in foreign subterfuge or the victim of what he calls a “witch hunt” (or maybe both), so nothing in Mueller’s report is likely to change the basic contours of a general election.

More surprising, though, is that lingering questions about Trump’s campaign, so front of mind for Democrats after the searing 2016 election, seem to have become almost an afterthought in the party’s unfolding contest to choose a nominee.

Last month, on the weekend after Robert Mueller submitted his report to the attorney general, I happened to be in New Hampshire, following the former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. I couldn’t help noticing that, while the report was almost the only thing playing on the news channels in my car, not a single Democratic voter asked about it.

And this may get to why the Democratic field, at least in these very early months, is taking shape a little differently than we might have guessed.

A lot of us who chronicled the last several campaigns expected 2020 to play out like a more chaotic version of 2004, which was the last time Democrats ran to unseat an incumbent Republican. That was the year, you may recall, when fury erupted among a Democratic base that lost all tolerance for George W. Bush and his war in Iraq.

The immediate beneficiary then was Howard Dean, an unknown governor who gave voice — booming and gravelly — to liberal frustration. Dean didn’t win, ultimately, but his campaign awakened leading Democrats to the uprising in their own party, and they spent most of their time attacking Bush as loudly and venomously as they could.

And so maybe we expected the Democratic debate this year to focus mostly on Russia and impeachment, on Trump’s treatment of women, on the issues of personal identity that now seem to define our politics and cleave the country.

Why Mueller’s Report won’t matter much in 2020

To this point, though, the Democratic campaign doesn’t feel much like 2004 — or even like a reverse image of 2012, when Republican candidates, eager to appease the so-called tea party rebellion in their own ranks, went on and on spinning out dark visions of Barack Obama’s socialist plan.

What’s different now, for one thing, is that Democratic voters aren’t harboring any real resentment for their own leadership. It’s not as if Democrats in Washington have been laying down arms and appeasing Trump, cooperating on legislation or posing for pictures at the White House. They’ve pretty much blocked him at every turn.

So liberals don’t seem especially focused on sending a message to Congress about “Vichy Democrats,” like they were 15 years ago. There’s no urgent litmus test for loyalty in a field where pretty much everyone is assumed to disagree with everything the president says.

Instead, Democrats seem more interested, this time out, in finding a candidate who can articulate a winning agenda. What they don’t want, more than anything else, is a replay of 2016, when the election became a choice between two unpopular candidates speaking to two distinct audiences, and a lot of voters who didn’t think much of Trump ended up voting for him anyway, because they never felt they had much choice.

In other words, an awful lot of liberal voters right now seem better than their Twitter feeds, and bigger than their party’s most fevered voices. They’re not looking to endlessly litigate and relitigate claims against Trump and his cabal of incompetents. They’re looking to turn the page on this entire sordid affair.

I’m always skeptical that polls — and especially national polls — can tell you very much about where a primary race is this early on. Fundraising totals, as much as my colleagues in the media obsess on them, tell you even less. (Trump raised almost nothing in 2015.)

My instinct is that the clear leaders in any Democratic poll right now, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are mostly reaping the rewards of name recognition and leftover loyalties. Those numbers are like exploding stars in the night sky — vivid echoes of things that have already occurred, but not very good predictors of what’s next.

But in the crossing trajectories so far of two much-talked-about candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, you can see how we may have misjudged where the Democratic electorate is.

Why Mueller’s Report won’t matter much in 2020

Warren, the Massachusetts senator and former law professor, has long been a celebrity of the populist left, and she’s running on a series of specific and sweeping proposals to punish corporate wealth. As I’ve written, she’s a better politician than most of her rivals and comes to the race with a strong personal brand.

And so her evident lack of appeal in early polls, particularly in neighboring New Hampshire, has puzzled just about everyone. Theories abound — that sexism is keeping Warren down, or that voters were turned off by her Native American DNA fiasco, or that they just aren’t smart enough to grasp the intricacies of her agenda.

If I’m right about what’s happening out there, though, then Warren’s candidacy is more likely suffering from her combative tone and familiarity. Warren is the thundering critic of Trump and the American oligarchy that Democrats needed during these difficult years, but she’s trapped in the moment because of it.

Primary voters agree with Warren’s essential indictment of the society. It may just be that they’re looking for someone who can articulate it in a less angry way, and for a broader audience.

And that’s where you get the 37-year-old Buttigieg, who’s risen from nowhere — well, South Bend, but that’s not so dissimilar — into the top echelon of the Democratic field.

Buttigieg feels like the starkest departure possible from the era of Trump and his tiresome, perpetually aggrieved generation; Mayor Pete’s like a human fast-forward button, skipping us past all the parts of the movie that make you stick your fingers in your eyes and squint.

If Dean’s signature shout in 2004 was “We want our country back!,” Buttigieg’s most resonant line so far is “It’s not about him, it’s about us.”

Democrats already know how they feel about Trump. What they want is a nominee who won’t become inexorably swallowed up in Trump’s all-consuming vortex of personal insults and cultural smears.

My guess is that neither of these mini-trends will continue unabated. Warren will get her hearing; she’s too powerful a voice not to. Buttigieg will face the scrutiny due a candidate who earned a little more than 8,000 votes in his last general election (which he won in a landslide, by the way).

But what all of this means is that the Mueller report and whatever comes of it will likely remain a subtext of the 2020 race, and as the polls inevitably shift, what will matter more is who’s got a vision for the next American chapter.

Democrats won’t be chanting “Lock him up!” when they face off against Trump a second time. All they’re really asking is to send him home.

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