The man for a post-Trump world

Phil Quin reckons Donald Trump won't be on the ballot for 2020 and shares his pick for most compelling contender for the Democratic nomination

I happened to meet an esteemed former US Congressman during recent travels in Washington D.C. It was not an interview per se, and we did not agree to go on the record. As such, what I will convey during the course of this article are some general observations about the 2020 Presidential election that I was able to glean from our 30-minute meeting. None of his comments were new to people familiar with Democratic Party thinking, but he synthesised the debate in a useful way.

First, though, a concession. Speculation about prospective Democratic nominees in 2020 is the cheezel of punditry: tasty and of questionable nutritional value. But what’s so wrong with a naughty snack from time to time? Let’s dig in.

First things first: a bold, if hardly original, prediction. Donald Trump will not be on the ballot in 2020. Particularly over the past two weeks, the Mueller investigation into Trump’s Russia ties has only deepened, broadened and intensified. What’s more, the referral by Mueller of alleged wrongdoing by Trump’s notorious ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen, to the Manhattan District Attorney suggests the reach of investigators into Trumpian malfeasance is reaching fever pitch. Like many, I have gone from healthy scepticism about the charges of direct collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Putin-aligned Russians to near certainty that such illegal cooperation did indeed take place. The evidence will not stop piling up; every day, new details emerge of nefarious contacts between Trump allies and family members with mobbed-up Russians with a direct line to Putin. These simply can’t be coincidences, and the argument that Trumpworld is too chaotic to commit crimes of this nature belies the fact that almost all criminal activity involves exactly that kind of slapdash opportunism and incompetence.

In the end, it’s my view Trump will refuse to meet with Mueller, precipitating a constitutional crisis that will force the Supreme Court to step in. Can Trump, as the sitting President, be legally required to comply with a Grand Jury subpoena? Two relevant cases, involving Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, suggest the court will demand that Trump appears. But the risks of him doing so are stupendous. The loquacious, ill-disciplined Trump will implode before a Grand Jury in a flurry of wanton perjury and unintended confessions of guilt. The real lawyers on Team Trump, as opposed to reality TV versions like former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, know this only too well. So what to do? If Trump defies a Supreme Court ruling, or chooses to invoke the Fifth Amendment (the legal right not to incriminate oneself), this will escalate matters to an degree almost impossible to fathom.

For all the public obsequiousness shown by the Republicans in the Congress, I’m told GOP Senators in particular are not far from jumping ship. Alongside Mueller’s ultimate findings, if Trump either refuses to comply with a SCOTUS-enforced subpoena or pleads the Fifth, he risks losing the Republican Senate en masse. If, as expected, the Democrats win the House of Representatives in November, this creates an unholy mess for Trump: a House eager to impeach and a Senate willing to convict.

Meanwhile, on top of all this, imagine a daily diet of new indictments emanating from the Mueller investigation, including close allies, White House staff and confidantes as well as, critically, Trump family members. (Most constitutional scholars agree the President himself cannot be indicted). Can you conceive of a more intractable political conundrum for the President? He testifies and effectively indicts himself, or he refuses and creates the political conditions for his own downfall. There is only one course of action available to Trump that doesn’t end up in prolonged humiliation: as with Nixon, his voluntary resignation.

The Democrats would be deeply unwise to look past Mitch Landrieu as a potentially inspired - and inspiring - choice as their standard-bearer in 2020.

It is well within Trump’s rhetorical wheelhouse to construct a case as to why his resignation is a sign of his greatness, not malfeasance. He will contend it is a distraction; that he has achieved most of what he wanted anyway; that Melania and Barron need more time with Daddy. Whatever: he’ll have a story and, as with everything else these days, around 35 percent of Americans will buy it and the remainder will shake their heads in disbelieving exasperation. The upshot is he will exit office some time in 2019 and, barring damaging VP-related findings by Mueller, Mike Pence will assume office. This does not cause too many butterflies for the Democrats I talk to. Pence has problems enough to fill a column thrice this length, so I’ll put those aside in favour of asking: who is likely to challenge him from the Democratic side?

Since listicles went out of favour in around 2011, I won’t bore with a litany of names. Instead, I will focus on whom I believe is possibly the most compelling, and among the least known, contenders.

He is the outgoing Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, and his was the first name mentioned by the former Senator in our discussions even as he suggested Joe Biden may yet be a candidate in the absence of a consensus next generation runner.

Why Mitch Landrieu?

Well, for one thing, is he something of a unicorn in US politics: a liberal white southerner. But he is much more. A superb speaker, he became America’s most important mayor during a speech in August last year in which he explained his decision to remove three statues celebrating Confederacy statues. Given the persistence of “the cult of the Lost Cause”, it was a courageous move to take down monuments he argues “marinate in historic denial”. In the most nuanced and intelligent remarks on race since Obama responded to the controversy over his radical pastor, Jeremiah Wright, a speech that saved his candidacy in 2008, Landrieu did not mince words:

"These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitised Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for."

It is impossible to overstate the courage inherent in these remarks. Confederacy nostalgia is endemic in the Deep South and is still embraced wholeheartedly by many white voters in his state of Louisiana. To them, Landrieu said bluntly:

“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”

Landrieu pulled no punches: Confederacy leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, heroes to many in the South, did not fight for the United States - but against it. They were, therefore, in no uncertain terms, traitors.

I urge everyone to read or watch the speech; to me, it is the most powerful piece of US political oratory since Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Like the former president, he displays an acute appreciation of history, a clear understanding of the American ideal coupled with a realistic appreciation of its flaws, and an inspiring oratorical style.

Some may argue that a mayor is several rungs beneath the presidency but remember that, in a deep red state like Louisiana, the city of New Orleans is the one and only basecamp for liberal politicians. And it is also not just any city, but a profoundly diverse and iconic one, drawing on myriad cultures and influences from French to Spanish, to West African and Vietnamese. His New Orleans sounds a lot like the nation Obama evoked back in 2004. If he can expand this into a truly American narrative, dispensing with tired old divisions, particularly in the Deep South, the Democrats may have found a candidate capable of binding the wounds of more than just the Trump presidency. His message of inclusion is an antidote to the pernicious and seemingly ineradicable divide over the history and meaning of the US Civil War - and failed post-war reconstruction that led to centuries of Jim Crow laws that kept black slaves in all but name.

He has an uphill climb. Louisiana has no Democratic political machine to speak of outside of the Landrieu family itself (his sister, Mary, served in the US Senate). He does not have a natural base, or an army of loyalists like Clinton or Obama. But he shares so many of their characteristics that the party would be deeply unwise to look past Mitch Landrieu as a potentially inspired - and inspiring - choice as their standard-bearer in 2020.

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