The need for a sweeping agenda for democratic security

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Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

By Jeremy D. Rosner

This article was originally published in The Hill, March 27, 2018.

As the Russia investigation continues to accelerate, there is some chance the national policy agenda could experience a seismic shift. Yet there is little evidence our leaders are ready for it.

Of course, nobody knows what Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation will conclude about possible crimes linked to the 2016 presidential election. But the felony charges he has brought against 19 individuals, including 4 Trump aides, and the guilty pleas extracted from 3 of them, suggest bigger shoes may drop. If that happens, the national conversation will change quickly.

Consider what happened in the Watergate era. Just one year before Richard Nixon’s resignation, Watergate was not a dominant issue for most Americans. In April 1973, Gallup found that a 53-31 percent majority said the scandal was “just politics,” rather than something “very serious.”  Through late 1973 and early 1974, although Watergate was often in the news, the country’s agenda was more defined by the Vietnam War and the OPEC oil embargo.

But as the scandal deepened, the national focus shifted toward corruption and political reform. The Congress elected soon after Nixon’s resignation focused intensely on cleaning up campaign financing and other parts of the political system. Jimmy Carter won the presidential election two years after that in part by campaigning on political morality.

There has been too little consideration of how the national agenda would change if the Mueller investigation yields bombshells. Even if that is only a minor possibility, it warrants a major focus on what would follow.

First, at that point, big shifts in public opinion and the public agenda could come very quickly.

Our firm’s research suggests most of the public today is withholding judgment on the Trump-Russia story, waiting to see what Mueller finds. But once his conclusions are out, many who paid little attention to this story will focus intently. It is good to recall that just weeks before Nixon’s August 1974 resignation, a majority still did not feel Nixon should step down. That changed quickly as the White House tapes provided vivid evidence of wrongdoing.

Second, if Mueller’s findings are damning, this scandal will almost certainly play an outsize role in defining the 2018 elections, with voters demanding accountability. A February survey our firm did for Stand Up America found 64 percent of registered voters said they would be less likely to vote for their incumbent House member if Mueller produced evidence of criminal activity by Trump and his team, and if that member of Congress had been involved in efforts to attack or delay Mueller’s investigation. Just among Republican respondents living in districts now represented by a Republican, the figure was still 62 percent — even though 84 percent of these people voted for Trump.

Third, in the event of strong evidence of illegal cooperation with Russia, it is likely a major debate would emerge about how to secure our democracy against foreign subversion. Yet there is little evidence of national leaders so far framing a comprehensive answer. Democrats apparently don’t want to count unhatched chickens; Republicans apparently don’t believe chickens exist.

There are many relevant ideas in circulation; leaders in both parties should be focusing on integrating them into a single agenda; that could include:

Protecting our elections. The Senate Intelligence Committee this past week outlined a good six-point program to strengthen cybersecurity for state election systems and reduce the chances of tampered vote counts.

Social media transparency. Evidence of Russians creating fake social media accounts, and this past week’s stories about potential misuse of millions of Americans’ Facebook accounts, should prompt new rules to require that social media platforms disclose what political ads they are airing, who paid for them, and at whom they were targeted.

Foreign subversion. The Foreign Agent Registration Act, little enforced since its adoption in 1938 to prevent fascist subversion, needs stronger restrictions, disclosure and penalties. The security clearance process for White House staff needs to be tightened. We should require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns as a security matter.

Healing our democratic culture. Reform-minded leaders might also address weaknesses in our political culture that helped bring us to this point, such as steps to reduce political polarization; to encourage greater political and civic participation; to reduce the role of big money in campaigns; and to narrow expanding inequalities of income and wealth, which political scientists convincingly argue helped fuel the populism and anti-constitutional tone in 2016.

Helping defend democracy abroad. The emerging scandal also underscores the need for a more resolute set of policies toward Russia and other regimes trying to undermine democracy worldwide, including mutual support among democratic countries.

Whatever the particulars, we would do well to consider now what it would look like to have a truly sweeping agenda to secure our democracy — just in case Mueller’s findings are truly sweeping.

Jeremy D. Rosner is a partner at the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. He earlier served as a senior staff member on President Clinton’s National Security Council.