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As Russia fog lifts for Trump, will Democrats finally see reality?

Pushing collusion theories only delayed inevitable reckoning over 2016

For two years, Democrats have found it easier to blame the Russians for their 2016 defeat instead of appraising their own politics and policies, Winston writes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
For two years, Democrats have found it easier to blame the Russians for their 2016 defeat instead of appraising their own politics and policies, Winston writes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Donald Trump has been president for 113 weeks, but last week, well, “That was the week that was,” to repurpose a little ’60s political satire.

It began Monday with the release of a CNN survey showing good economic numbers for the president and ended Sunday with better news for Trump and his supporters: The Mueller investigation was over with no collusion found and no further indictments.

Reality check. We haven’t seen the full Mueller report, though there is consensus on all sides that as much of the report should be made public as possible, within the laws and regulations governing grand jury testimony and classified material.

But with that caveat in mind, it was probably the best seven days of the Trump presidency. While the CNN survey found Trump suffers from low approval numbers in many areas, 71 percent of American voters viewed the economy as somewhat good or very good, while only 27 percent saw it as either somewhat or very poor. According to their survey tracking, one would have to go back to 2001 to find a positive economic outlook close to this level. 

Consistent with other research, the CNN survey shows Trump’s economic job approval (51 percent approve to 42 percent disapprove) much better than his overall approval (42-51 percent). He remains underwater on other issues such as foreign affairs (40-54 percent) and immigration (39-58 percent), meaning his economic job approval continues to be his major strength.

A positive perception of the economy is a very helpful tailwind for any incumbent president running for re-election. Still, this doesn’t mean Republicans can count on a smooth flight into 2020. Last November, they didn’t capitalize on the one strategic advantage they held: a strong economy.

According to the 2018 exit polls, 68 percent of the electorate believed the economy was excellent or good while 31 percent said it was not so good or poor. This was a major improvement from 2016, when only 36 percent believed the economy was excellent/good and 63 percent saw it as not so good/poor. Despite this major improvement in people’s economic outlook, accomplished in only two years, Republicans still ended up losing the House.

The GOP won voters who believed the economy was excellent/good, 60-39 percent. Among those who saw it as not so good/poor, Democrats won 83-14 percent. However, among the 51 percent of the electorate who said the economy was “good” as opposed to “excellent,” Republicans won them by a mere 51-47 percent margin.

Also watch: The back and forth on why Mueller’s report hasn’t been released yet

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The economy is almost always the No. 1 issue with voters. So Trump would be in a better position going into 2020 if the robust economy continues to produce jobs and wage increases over the next 19 months, if a China trade deal gets done and if the markets continue to trend up — and, now that the collusion cloud hanging over the White House is lifting, if the Trump campaign focuses on a positive economic message as it did successfully in 2016.

But last week was a good one for Trump for another reason. The conclusion of the Mueller report means Democrats, both congressional and presidential candidates, are finally going to have to acknowledge that they didn’t lose the 2016 election because of Russian interference.

No one condones the Russian attempt to disrupt our elections. It was intolerable, and it is important that both parties understand what the Mueller “after action” report found in terms of Russian meddling. But the onus for the Democrats’ 2016 defeat doesn’t lie at the feet of Vladimir Putin.

Hillary Clinton bears major responsibility for that outcome. She ran one of the worst campaigns in recent political history, and offered up a policy agenda that voters saw as status quo when they wanted change. They wanted more, much more, than a continuation of President Barack Obama’s policies, especially in the Rust Belt states where his economic policies had failed to deliver a strong recovery from the 2008 recession.

In the election post-mortems, some pundits and politicos blamed Clinton, her campaign, her emails and blunders, like her infamous “deplorables” gaffe, for what should have been a fairly straightforward win. And she earned the criticism.

But given Trump’s historically high negatives and the fact that her campaign raised twice as much money as him, spending $253 million on TV ads to his $93 million, it’s not surprising Democrats and the media expected a Clinton victory in November as a matter of course. All the metrics said so.

And yet, while politics is about people, it’s even more about vision and policies that either connect with voters or don’t. In the case of Trump, even though his negatives were higher than Clinton’s, he offered unhappy voters something she didn’t: change and ideas that engaged those who felt they had been ignored by an elite political class.

Excuses no more

But for two years, Democrats have lived in a state of denial, looking for another explanation for their unexpected defeat. In their minds, the likes of Trump simply couldn’t have won. There must have been another reason. So they blamed the Russians and avoided what was likely to be an uncomfortable appraisal of their politics and policies.

After last week, the Russian excuse appears to no longer be operational.

That’s not to say Democrats or much of the media have given up on the Trump-Russia conspiracy, or even that Russians didn’t meddle. They did, but we’ve seen no definitive evidence that their efforts actually affected the outcome of the election. Now, Mueller has seemingly cleared Trump of what has been a constant diatribe of over-the-top charges of collusion and worse for two years, designed to call the legitimacy of his election into question and avoid acknowledging the real reasons he won in 2016.

How political parties and candidates react after elections is usually predictable, regardless of party. Winners think they did everything right and often fail to do an honest assessment of their own campaigns, which can cause them problems in the next.

Losers usually end with their base fighting with their centrists, the former group believing they didn’t go far enough to the left or right and the latter, needing to build a majority coalition, seeing the base as too extreme. Bridging those differing views is central to how a political party does in the future.

For Democrats, pushing their Russia collusion theory has only delayed an inevitable reckoning. For Trump, lifting the weight of the Mueller investigation from his presidency gives him the opportunity to start again, refocus his efforts on strengthening the economy and work on the kitchen table issues that matter most to voters.

But, perhaps most important, with the divisive Mueller investigation about to become political history, the country can finally begin to heal.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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