Democrats are walking into a Trumpian trap

Take a walk with me, dear reader, into the yard, down the street - anywhere, really, just so that we can step outside of our house of outrage. It's a roomy house, with space for everyone from woke progressives to disillusioned conservatives.

It's a good house, filled with people united in a just and defiant cause. It's a harmonious house, thrumming with the sound of people agreeing vigorously. And lately, we've started to believe we're... winning. We breathed relief this week when politician Roy Moore went down to his well-earned political death, like Jack Nicholson's Joker at the end of "Batman".

We roared when special prosecutor Robert Mueller extracted a guilty plea from a cooperative Michael Flynn, and the investigative noose seemed to tighten around President Donald Trump's neck. We cheered when Democrat Ralph Northam trounced Mr Ed Gillespie after the Republican took the low road with anti-immigrant demagogy.

It's all lining up. Democrats have an 11-point edge over Republicans in the generic congressional ballot. The President's approval rating is barely scraping 37 per cent. Nearly six in 10 Americans say the United States is on the "wrong track". Isn't revenge in 2018 starting to taste sweet - and 2020 even sweeter?

Don't bet on it.

Democrats are making the same mistakes Republicans made when they inhabited their own house of outrage, back in 1998.

You remember. The year of the stained blue dress. Of a president who abused women, lied about it and used his power to bomb other countries so he could distract from his personal messes.

Of a special prosecutor whose investigation overstepped its original bounds. Of half the country in a moral fever to impeach. Of the other half determined to dismiss sexual improprieties, defend a democratically elected leader and move on with the business of the country.

Oh, also the year in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped by 16 per cent, the unemployment rate fell to a 28-year low, and Democrats gained seats in Congress.

Mr Bill Clinton, as we all know, survived impeachment and left office with a strong economic record and a 66 per cent approval rating. If nothing else, 1998 demonstrated the truth of the unofficial slogan on which Mr Clinton had first run for president: It's the economy, stupid.

Prosperity trumps morality. The wealth effect beats the yuck factor.

That may not have held true in Mr Moore's defeat, but it's not every day that an alleged paedophile runs for office. Even so, he nearly won.

1998 also showed that when it comes to sex, we Americans forgive easily; that when it comes to women, we don't always believe readily; and that when it comes to presidents, we want them to succeed.

However else one might feel about Mr Mueller - or, for that matter, Mr Ken Starr - nobody elected them to anything. Which brings us back to Mr Trump.

Democrats may like their polling numbers, but here are a few others for them to consider. The first is 3.3 per cent, last quarter's annual growth rate, the highest in three years.

Next is 1.7 per cent, the core inflation rate, meaning interest rates are unlikely to rise very sharply.

Also, 4.1 per cent, the unemployment rate, which is down half a percentage point, or nearly 800,000 workers, since the beginning of the year.

Finally, 24 per cent, which is the rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average since Mr Trump became President - one of the market's best performances ever.

Democrats will find plenty of ways to explain that these numbers aren't quite as good as they sound - they are not - or that we're setting ourselves up for a big crash - we might well be - or that the deficit is only getting bigger - it is, but so what?

Politically speaking, none of that matters.

Mr Trump enters 2018 with a robust economy that will, the estimate of the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation shows, grow stronger, thanks to the tax Bill.

What about the outrage over the President's behaviour? Ms Kirsten Gillibrand and other Senate Democrats have called on Mr Trump to resign, following new accusations of sexual harassment and assault. Good luck with that.

Mr Tom Steyer and other liberal plutocrats want the President impeached and thrown out of office. Good luck electing 67 Democrats to the Senate.

Every minute wasted on that whale hunt is a minute the Democrats neglect to make an affirmative case for themselves. Which leaves us with Mr Mueller. All of us in the house of outrage are eager for the special counsel to find the goods on the President and Russia, obstruction, financial shenanigans, anything.

The clues seem so obvious, the evidence so tantalisingly close. Yet we should also know that the wish tends to be the father of the thought. What if Mr Mueller comes up short in finding evidence of collusion? What if the worst Mr Mueller's got is one bad tweet that, maybe, constitutes evidence of obstruction?

And what if further doubts are raised about the impartiality of the investigation? The President's opponents have made a huge political bet on an outcome that's far from clear.

Dear reader, I too live in the house of outrage, for all the usual reasons. Just beware, beware of growing comfortable in it. As in 1998, it just might turn out to be a house of losers.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2017, with the headline 'Democrats are walking into a Trumpian trap'. Print Edition | Subscribe