Steve Israel: Dems' big opportunity from Russia probe

Partisan tensions arise in Russia probe
Partisan tensions arise in Russia probe

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    Partisan tensions arise in Russia probe

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Partisan tensions arise in Russia probe 02:51

Story highlights

  • Steve Israel: For Trump base, Mueller indictments a nothing-burger; for Trump opponents, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet
  • Israel: With GOP in Russia probe muck, to win swing voters Dems should focus on voters' kitchen-table concerns

Former US Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. His next book, "Big Guns," will be released in April. This piece is one in a series of columns for CNN Opinion on life after Congress. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN)If you're among the 33% (according to the latest Gallup Poll) who support Donald Trump and if you get all your news from Trump-friendly outlets, the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates are indeed the "nothing-burger" the pundits like to discuss (paraphrasing the President himself, a nothing-burger meal might conclude with him standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shooting somebody without losing voters). On the other hand, if you're a stalwart Trump opponent, this is a lavish all-you-can-eat buffet.

Steve Israel
My own thoughts on the indictments stem from my experience as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where I was in charge of recruiting and supporting House candidates. I'd often meet with them at their political headquarters or invite them to my own office in Washington and dispense my sage counsel.
I gave them all my best tips and laid out the rules for a viable campaign, and in the back of my mind I would always think: Rule 1 is to avoid headlines with words like "indictment," "money laundering" and "conspiracy." I always tried to communicate as much to them.
    In the current polarized political environment, and following on the heels of the indictments and the guilty plea of George Papadapoulos, we'll see whether my advice remains sound. I do, however, have some basic cautions for both political parties going forward.
    First, we're just about a year from the midterm election, and the impact of the Manafort, Gates and other potential indictments remain to be seen. This much is clear: Congressional Republicans were already experiencing headwinds, and those headwinds just became strong and sustained.
    Still, in our polarized environment, what appears as "black and white" isn't as impactful as what's gray.
    If you're one of the coveted swing voters in a low-turnout midterm election, the impact of the Mueller indictment may be indirect and delayed. Those voters already look at Washington as dysfunctional and dishonest. For them, it's "another day, another indictment." Those voters don't wake up and go to bed with Mueller and Manafort on their minds. For them, it's about their economic mobility and the futures of their children. It's about their family members ravaged by opioid abuse, the veteran who needs better health care, and their national security. They want an administration and a government that will focus on their survival and progress, not on its own political survival and the progress of its legal defense.
    President Trump's propensity to defend himself or deflect to attacking Hillary Clinton or others is likely to weaken him (and other Republicans) with those voters. Republican strategies to shift the discourse to Democrats may gratify their base, but will alienate independent voters who want the President focused on them.
    Democrats, meanwhile, can't make the mistake of chomping at the Trump bait and helping him obfuscate the issues. Nancy Pelosi, the shrewdest political strategist and tactician I've ever met, often categorizes campaigns as "The 3 Ms: message, mobilization, and money (to message and mobilize)." Adding two more M's in Mueller and Manafort won't win swing voters. Talking about middle class mobility -- while the White House wallows in the muck of a toxic investigation -- will.

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    Of course, at the end of the day -- and at the end of this election -- we must ensure that our institutions and the rule of law prevail. But Washington sees everything through a political prism. This may look like a disjointed kaleidoscope right now. Clarity will emerge before long, and whichever party focuses on the issues being discussed by swing voters at their kitchen tables will win the majority next year.