Opinion: The Big What-If Question Hovering Over 2018
What about Alabama? The president’s campaign is still under investigation
Election Night 2018:
TV Anchor (in an excited, making-history voice): “We now project that the Democrats have won the House of Representatives with a minimum of 219 seats and Nancy Pelosi will regain the speaker’s gavel after eight years in the minority.”
Democratic strategist (who last worked on a campaign in 1988): “This cake was baked last December when Doug Jones beat Roy Moore. You can’t win elections by kissing off minorities, young voters and suburban women.”
Republican strategist (who once worked on a campaign while in college): All presidents take a hit in their first off-year election. The Democrats under Obama lost 63 House seats. And Hillary Clinton and her crazy health care plan cost the Democrats the House in 1994.
Democratic strategist: It’s always Hillary with you Republicans.
Republican strategist: It’s always Alabama with you Democrats.
Politics are rarely that predictable. But all the post-Alabama glib talk about a Democratic wave election makes it seem like we’re already in 2019 gleefully handicapping the Iowa caucuses.
In truth, all political projections assume that events roughly stay the same. Without getting apocalyptic about a major terrorist attack or war on the Korean peninsula, there are many plausible scenarios for November 2018 that would make the Alabama results seem as long ago as Harvey Weinstein’s vibrant movie career.
Hawking the Republican Miracle-Gro tax plan at the White House Wednesday, Donald Trump burbled, “Today we stand on the verge of a new economic miracle.”
That triumphalism works when the Dow Jones average is well over 24,000. But what happens to the Republicans politically if the stock market retreats by 10 percent in 2018 and the unemployment rate starts edging up toward 5 percent?
A far more serious threat to political stability would occur if Trump illustrates the dictum that those who forget Watergate are doomed to repeat it.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, a chorus of Republicans outlined the case for firing special counsel Robert Mueller. As committee chairman Bob Goodlatte put it in his opening statement, “We are now beginning to better understand the magnitude of this insider bias on Mr. Mueller’s team.”
Goodlatte was referring to a series of anti-Trump text messages between former top Mueller staffer, FBI agent Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page, a lawyer for the FBI. Mueller removed Strzok from the Trump investigation last summer when he first learned of the text messages.
Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, who was one of the leaders of the House crusade to impeach Bill Clinton, pointedly noted that nine members of Mueller’s staff had donated to Democrats. Chabot asked, “How, with a straight face, can you say that this group of Democratic partisans are unbiased and will give President Trump a fair shake?”
The target of Chabot’s question was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and serves as his supervisor. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his involvement in the 2016 Trump campaign.
Throughout the hearing, Rosenstein was unstinting in his defense of Mueller: “I think it would be very difficult … to find somebody better qualified for this job. Director Mueller has, throughout his lifetime, been a dedicated and respected and heroic public servant.”
In an ideal world, Mueller staffers would limit their personal text messages to “OMG” over cute cat videos. And it would have been preferable if their only political contributions were to the Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter presidential libraries.
But there is absolutely no evidence of bias or an unequal standard of justice in the Mueller investigation. Career Justice Department officials also do not lose their rights as citizens to write checks to the candidates of their choice.
Only in the Fox & Friends world of partisan talking points is the Russia investigation some diabolical plot by the so-called Deep State to derail Trump. Glossed over in the attacks on Mueller are the indictment of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and the guilty plea by Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn.
After nearly a year in office, Trump’s fan-boy adoration of Vladimir Putin remains baffling.
As the Washington Post reports in an article on Trump and Putin by Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker, “The result is without parallel in U.S history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat.”
All of this is the backdrop for the lingering fears that Trump, feeling cornered, will at some point order Rosenstein to fire Mueller. If the deputy attorney general follows the Watergate script, Rosenstein would then resign and a compliant replacement would do Trump’s bidding.
What happens then?
That could be the question on which the 2018 elections pivot. What seems certain is that Trump, at minimum, would face a hostile Senate. The GOP’s shaky 51-49 majority completely vanishes when you factor in the enduring hostility to the president of retiring Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake.
But the Democrats could also overplay their hand. Making the 2018 elections a referendum on impeachment might satisfy anti-Trump partisans, but it might also prompt wavering GOP voters to rally around their party.
This was the mistake that Republicans made in 1998 when they assumed that voters shared their undying enmity toward Bill Clinton. Instead, the Democrats defied history (the sixth year of a presidential term is usually a disaster for the party that controls the White House) by actually picking up five House seats.
But all of this is jumping into the hazy uncertainty of life in the age of Trump. For there is only one constant with this whirligig president — nothing stays the same except Trump’s oversized ego.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.