Just as President Donald Trump was supposed to be hitting his stride in his no-collusion victory lap, his administration—at the behest of its disconcertingly influential acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney—announced Monday that it was siding with a district judge’s dubious ruling that the entire Affordable Care Act should be tossed. Given that Republicans lost the last election over health care and still have no plan to “replace” Obamacare if it’s zapped, the political constituency for the administration’s new hard-line posture was not immediately apparent.
The move was seen, further, as bailing out Democrats from a bad news cycle—or, at minimum, as putting a premature end to a rare good news cycle for Trump. Robert Mueller’s investigation, at least according to Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of the special counsel’s still-unreleased report, “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” By midweek, discussion about the two-year investigation into the president ending had been almost entirely superseded by the more typical sight of reporters asking Republicans if they were concerned about millions of people losing health care. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy—who had told donors in February that the GOP’s 2017 Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill cost the party the House—went to the president to complain.
The few days since the release of Barr’s summary demonstrate how a Mueller report that doesn’t meet Democrats’ hopes can help them: It snaps them back to the realities of how they really could take down Trump. Democrats no longer need to complicate their strategy with the fantasy that an investigation might produce a silver bullet and an obligation to consider impeachment. Instead, they can now train all of their efforts into taking Trump down the conventional way: by calling out his unpopular policy preferences and defeating him in the 2020 election.
Trump really couldn’t have made this transition easier for Democrats. When the Justice Department declared its new position on Monday night, House Democrats had already scheduled a Tuesday press conference announcing their plan to shore up the Affordable Care Act. The new bill—which expands Obamacare’s tax credits, creates a national reinsurance plan, and undoes Trump administration actions expanding the availability of junk insurance plans—is House Democrats’ effort to meet their central campaign promise of protecting coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. It’s also designed to keep the heat on Republicans by forcing votes on that promise.
Those aren’t the only difficult health care votes Democrats are trying to line up to keep the focus on their top issue. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday announced that he was putting forward an amendment to a pending disaster relief bill that would “prohibit the Department of Justice from using any funding to litigate the downfall of the ACA in the Circuit Court.” And House Democrats are prepping a resolution “condemning the Trump administration’s legal campaign to take away Americans’ health care.”
Health care was the top issue for 41 percent of voters in the 2018 midterm elections, and those voters broke decisively toward Democrats. It was the top issue Democrats campaigned on, and it will be a top issue that Democrats campaign on during the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. Focusing on it is more politically fruitful than focusing on the Mueller investigation. That’s why Democratic candidates in 2018 did so.
A ho-hum Mueller report—presuming it aligns, roughly, with the Barr summary—also lifts a great weight from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s shoulders: a major push from within her ranks to impeach the president.
Pelosi has always been wary of pursuing impeachment, knowing that it would distract from Democrats’ legislative agenda and, even if successful, fizzle out in the Senate absent significant Republican buy-in.
Even the more impeachment-curious members of the caucus, though, seemed to back off from the possibility following the release of Barr’s summary. California Rep. Brad Sherman, who’s filed impeachment articles against Trump in the past, admitted that the possibility had diminished. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that in spite of her support for impeachment in principle, Democrats also have to consider “the reality of having the votes in the Senate to pursue that.” On Wednesday afternoon, Michigan Rep. Rashida “Impeach the Motherfucker” Tlaib submitted an impeachment resolution with only one other member’s support: Texas Rep. Al Green, whose basis for impeachment has always been the president’s bigotry rather than the alleged misdeeds into which Mueller probed.
While Democrats can make lemonade out of the Mueller report by using it as an opportunity to refocus on their messaging on what’s popular, Republicans might make the opposite move: by going down a rabbit hole of their own in the wake of Mueller’s report. Kevin McCarthy, for example, has been spending his week vocally attacking California Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, calling on Schiff to step down from his chairmanship and comparing him to Joseph McCarthy. Trump has said Schiff should be forced to resign. Now, which issue seems like it will be of bigger importance to voters in 2020: whether they have health care, or whether Adam Schiff continues to represent California’s 28th District?
Most voters, if they’ve even heard about him, don’t care about Adam Schiff, just as most voters, if they even heard about it, didn’t care that Donald Trump Jr. met with some Russians in Trump Tower in 2016. Politics does not rotate on this axis. It’s obviously welcome news for Trump that he’s escaped (these particular) legal worries. But Democrats should be pleased, not worried, that they’ll have to get rid of the president on conventional grounds.