Robert Mueller left Democrats a road map to continue their investigations into the conduct and comportment of President Donald Trump. The only question is where that road map leads.
Does it lead to more searching examinations of the President’s efforts to quash the Mueller inquiry? Almost certainly. Does it lead to new probes about possible obstruction of justice? Probably. Does it lead to an effort to impeach Mr. Trump? Maybe.
There are risks to all three routes. And there are risks to avoiding those routes. The American poet Robert Frost is best known for speaking of the “road not taken,” positing in perhaps the country’s best-loved and most-memorized poem that it “made all the difference.” But that poem also spoke of looking down one of the roads and being unable to see beyond “where it bent in the undergrowth.”
But the political undergrowth, so full of uncertainty, nonetheless has a few road posts of certainty.
If the Democrats push too hard, too fast or too swiftly, they could be vulnerable to charges they have overreached, feasting on the President’s distress. The Republicans paid a big price – nearly unprecedented losses at the polls – when their zeal to torment former president Bill Clinton led to his impeachment for sexual improprieties.
But if they fail to push or do so with a surfeit of caution, they may miss an important opportunity and alienate the very people who provide them with votes, campaign contributions and political organizing.
“The Democrats are in a lousy place,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. “They have constitutional responsibilities and Mueller made it clear there are multiple grounds for impeachment. How do you not go forward and risk enraging the Democratic base?”
Increasingly it is clear that American politics, once shaped by consensus, has devolved into a battle of the bases. Mr. Trump leans to the right and speaks in bombastic terms to appeal to his base in some conservative circles, in rural enclaves and in rusty centres of manufacturing left vacant in the new economy. The Democratic presidential candidates in turn appeal to their base, which is centred in urban areas, on university campuses and in suburbs such as Brookline, Mass., Bethesda, Md., Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Bloomfield Hills, Mich., hugging the city lines.
One of the principal unknowns in Campaign 2020 is whether the centre of American politics is the proving ground of the election or whether it has so diminished that it has been rendered almost meaningless. The great political commentator James Reston wrote in 1965 of the importance of that vital centre.
“The decisive battlefield lies in the centre and cannot be captured from either of the extremes,” he wrote, “and any party that defies this principle does not enhance its chances of national power or even of effective opposition, but precisely the opposite.”
That is clearly no longer the case. And though many political operatives came of age later than the Lyndon Johnson years (1963-69), they are haunted by fears of leaning too close to the extremes. The presidential candidates who did so – the Republican Barry Goldwater of Arizona in 1964 and the Democrat George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972 – lost in electoral landslides, together winning only 7 per cent of the states in two disastrous political experiments.
“Over time, the animus of the extremely partisan team Mueller put together will taint any efforts the Democrats make to exploit the unbelievably biased report they produced,” said former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, a former White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush.
So where does that leave the Democrats?
The base wants blood. The large majority of presidential candidates want to serve up red meat at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners and at the candidate forums they are visiting as they seek the allegiance of organizers, activists and voters as the caucus and primary campaign begins. The first presidential debates are already scheduled, for Miami June 26 and 27. There are so many candidates that one night will not suffice.
Meanwhile, in a subtle but telling development, Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who heads the House judiciary committee, has adjusted his views on impeachment.
Months ago he dismissed the notion, knowing the Senate would never provide the two-thirds margin that would remove the President if the House proceeded and approved an impeachment resolution. There is little likelihood of the Senate voting to remove him; 67 votes is a high mountain to climb and the chamber is controlled by Republicans. But now Mr. Nadler seems open to an impeachment inquiry. Late last week Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, called for beginning impeachment proceedings.
In truth, the Democrats are so enraged – by the Mueller findings and by the apparent softening of the report by Attorney-General William Barr, whom they didn’t trust when he first held that office from 1991 to 1993 under then-president George H.W. Bush – that the range of the possible has expanded substantially.
Mr. Trump has some weapons in his arsenal for 2020, however. “He was absolutely right that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and it wouldn’t cost him a vote,” Mr. Ornstein said. “But we don’t know whether his base turns out the way it did in 2016.”