May 24, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Clapper Provides the Democrats an Opening

The former intelligence head says Russia decided the 2016 election. Time for the Democrats to lead.

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In a new book, James Clapper talks about the moment, in the fall of 2016, when he briefed the Republican leadership on Russian operatives conspiring to undermine US sovereignty by moving the electorate in favor of Republican Donald Trump.

Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, hoped that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would join a bipartisan effort to sound the alarm. But it was to no avail, he wrote. It was also no surprise.

I was disappointed but not surprised. It seemed they had decided by then that they didn’t care who their nominee was, how he got elected or what effects having a foreign power influence our election would have on the nation, as long as they won.

In other words, power above patriotism. Elsewhere in Facts and Fears, Clapper accuses Vladimir Putin of being “bent on undermining our fundamental system here. And when a foreign nation, particularly an adversary nation, gets involved as much as they did in our political process, that’s a real danger to this country.”

Then, last night, Clapper took all this a step further during an appearance with Judy Woodruff on the PBS Newshour. Not only did Russian operatives influence the outcome of the election, they decided it. Clapper said: “To me, it just exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election, and it’s my belief they actually turned it.”

Bear in mind who Clapper is. He is a career service-member who has worked under presidents of both parties. He led the national security apparatus for nearly a decade. And he claims to have no affiliation to either party. So when Clapper says it is his informed opinion that Russians turned the election in Trump’s favor, hoo-boy.

As Rachel Maddow noted last night:

“If Clapper is correct that Donald Trump is only in office because Russia put him there, the Trump-Russia investigation isn’t just a matter of crime and punishment. It’s not a typical Washington scandal. It is a critical nexus between the rule of law and national sovereignty.”

Let’s ground Clapper’s remarks in political communication.

“National sovereignty” are words the Democrats should visit again and again as they establish themes and tropes in preparation for 2020. The Democrats must seize, or take back, the mantle of patriotism surrendered by the Republicans.

And the Democrats must redefine patriotism to reflect the values of their many constituencies, which include freedom, equality, pluralism, prosperity, and justice for all. They don’t even need to take the lead, though they should (more on that in a moment). They can follow a trail blazed by Clapper and other wise old men.

I hope to look back a year from now to see that Democratic political communication took three forms. The first form, coming early in Trump’s presidency, was about jobs, health care, equal pay for women—economic themes with wide currency. Even when Trump appeared to be an “economic nationalist,” Dems benefited. More so now that the president’s “economic nationalism” has been soundly debunked.

The second new form is about corruption. Not only are the Democrats going to fight for the little guy, they’ll fight the corruption rotting the heart of government from the inside out, taking out bribery, waste and pay-for-play root and branch.

The third form has yet to take shape. That form should be about patriotism, and the Democratic Party positioning itself to be the protector of the rule of law, norms, and values, all the things that should not be controversial but are thanks to Trump.

As I said, the Democrats can follow in Clapper’s footsteps. They can take the center, and hold it, while the president flails. But I think the Democrats should lead. They should remind voters that the president’s way of defining patriotism—blood and soil—is only one way to define it, and the wrong way, because it undermines our national sovereignty and emboldens our enemies. There is better way, a Democratic way.

Again, the GOP is giving the Democrats all the space they need to lead.

Just 16 percent of Americans think the Republicans have handled Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe well, according to a major survey by Democratic operatives and strategists. Conversely, 58 percent said they have handled it poorly.  

Overall, 27 percent of survey respondents said that they approve of the job congressional Republicans are doing to hold the administration accountable, compared to 53 percent who disapprove, reported McClatchy’s Alex Roarty. When asked what concerned voters most about the Republican response to the Mueller probe, 47 percent of people said it was “putting politics over country.”

So: Nearly half believe the GOP has succumb to the temptations of power.

Time for the Democrats to capitalize, and lead.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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