WASHINGTON — Wednesday's congressional grilling of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was undoubtedly disappointing for Democrats and for anyone else who wants to see President Donald Trump ejected from office as expeditiously as possible. Mueller seemed faltering and sometimes confused; he offered no new information and generated not a single bombshell news clip.
It's tempting to argue that what's important is the report, not the on-camera performance, and that because Mueller has utterly failed to explain its contents to the public, this task now falls to journalists. But this rather misses the point: That tentative, exhausted creature on our televisions — the one who seemed to have a less-than-comprehensive grasp of the finer details — was the guy in charge of the report.
The problem is now the credibility of the report itself, not a shortage of infographics compressing its byzantine contents into barely readable form. The best-case scenario (and also the most likely one) is that the public will forget that the hearings ever happened. Regardless, barring some earth-shattering new revelation, impeachment is off the table. We're going to have to remove Trump from office the old-fashioned way, by electing someone else.
Which means that Democrats need to be laser focused on just that: winning an election. They can no longer afford to indulge in the fantasy of a deus ex machina handing them power without the tedious logrolling, grubby compromises and often shameless pandering that characterizes coalition politics.
Over the past 15 years, the left's imagination has been captured by a series of such narratives, to the detriment of its political effectiveness. In 2008, Democrats imagined themselves to be on the cusp of a second New Deal, with Barack Obama as a latter-day Franklin Delano Roosevelt, courtesy of the financial crisis. The analogy was inapt, but Democrats proceeded to act as if it were true and got shellacked in the 2010 midterms.
Once it was clear that there was no second New Deal coalition in the offing, the left convinced itself that generational political dominance was nonetheless imminent, courtesy of the declining white share of the U.S. population. Between 2012 and 2016, I lost count of the number of times I heard the GOP described as "a rump party, confined largely to the South" or was solemnly informed that there would never be another Republican president in my lifetime. Hillary Clinton opted to run her campaign on that theory, and we all know how that turned out.
Now we are in the era of Mueller, who was supposed to usher in a second Watergate. When the report didn't deliver the death blow that Democrats had expected, their hopes rapidly shifted to congressional hearings. Which brings us up to date with Wednesday's wet firecracker.
Some on the left are already shifting their hopes to another deus ex machina, in the form of the president's New York state tax returns. The state's Democratic-controlled government has obligingly passed a law that would make them available to Congress, which has already generated a fair bit of excitement among the president's opponents.
Trump is suing to prevent their release, and over the coming months, the legality and ethics of this law will be fiercely debated. No one should make the mistake of believing that the passion of this argument must herald an actual political impact.
Spoiler alert: The political effects are likely to once again disappoint. Most of what the tax returns can tell us is already known, at least in broad outline. Moreover, most of it was already known in 2016; he won anyway.
The odds are minuscule that a congressional committee could detect tax fraud that the Internal Revenue Service missed. The probability is higher that we would learn something about Trump's Russian dealings — but then, we already know quite a bit about them too, and Democrats still aren't certain of victory.
But most likely of all is that we would uncover only one "secret," which is that Trump isn't quite as rich as he claims. Confirming that the president is "only" worth some hundreds of millions of dollars might interest New Yorkers who routinely parse the difference between hedge-fund billions and merely opulent wealth. It won't do a thing to alter the electoral calculus for the rest of Americans, who will think, correctly, exactly what they did before: that Trump is plenty rich.
Alternatively, the left can realize that this sordid history has no cosmic author planning to wrap things up with a tidy happy ending — no pre-written outline dictating that the good guys have to win in the end. Democrats can stop waiting for surprise plot twists to dispatch their opposition and start trying to put together a winning electoral coalition, based on what they themselves can reliably offer to the widest possible number of voters.