The Midterms Have Boosted My Faith in America

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- No matter who does well in the U.S. midterm elections, no matter if the contests are the most negative ever, the way the campaign has shaped up is bringing back my faith in the U.S. as a sane country. After months of media bombardment on the issue, “Russia-gate” barely gets a mention in the hard-fought races.

Earlier last month, Wesleyan University’s Media Project reported, citing data from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, that in the month ending in mid-October, only 0.1 percent of ad airings for House races, and none at all for the Senate, referred to Russia or special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election.

The share of Russia-related ads on Facebook and Instagram appears to be slightly bigger. Facebook’s political ad archive (which includes Instagram’s) numbers 1,850,468 ads, on which some $300 million has been spent since May. Searching for Russia in the archive yields 8,100 results, or 0.4 percent of the total, though some of these are anti-Russia-gate, such as one that pictures a T-shirt with the message, “Russia Didn’t Make Me Vote for Trump, Hillary Did.”

One might expect the discussion of Russia collusion to play an outsize role in certain specific races, most notably in the one in California’s 48th congressional district, where the incumbent, Republican Dana Rohrabacher, is fighting a stiff challenge from Republican-turned-Democrat Harley Rouda.

Rohrabacher is an unabashed Russia dove who is well-liked in the Kremlin, and, given Russia’s widely assumed political toxicity, Democrats have used this against him. The most-aired spot in the campaign portrays Rohrabacher as a cosmonaut bobbing up and down in outer space, with a Russian flag on the sleeve of his spacesuit and a Russian rocket sailing across the screen in the background. “‘Dana, do you copy?’ I think we’ve lost him completely,” a voice says.

But Russia doesn’t get an explicit mention in the text of the ad. Instead, Rohrabacher is accused of voting 21 times to raise his salary during his 30-year stint in Congress, militating against the sale of houses to gays and suggesting schoolchildren be trained to use firearms. That, and not any Russia connection, is, according to the ad, why he’s “way out there.” And while Rohrabacher’s stance on Russia came up in the candidates’ debate last month, it was only discussed briefly. Immigration got far more airplay.

The Orange County race is special because Rohrabacher is the rare American politician who opens himself up to attack by insisting that the U.S. should cooperate with Russia rather than antagonize it. This hasn't turned him into a pariah with voters; he and Rouda are virtually tied, though Rohrabacher appears to have gained some poll momentum lately.

I’m not rooting for the Republican, who holds some pretty outlandish views on climate change and guns. I’m just noting with pleasure that even in this outlier of a case, the campaign is about different issues than Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supposedly evil role in recent U.S. history. Rouda isn’t focusing on fighting a Russian menace: He’s more concerned about inequality, education, “common sense gun reform” and health care as a right. 

Health care, according to Kantar Media, is the biggest issue in the midterms, commanding by far the most airtime. It’s followed by taxes, jobs, education and social issues.

Russia’s near-absence from the campaign doesn’t, of course, mean that Russia-gate is over, that President Donald Trump is in the clear or that Russia didn’t mess with Democrats or U.S. social network users in 2016. Mueller has plenty of evidence it did. His investigation is still under way; the special counsel is simply being scrupulous about observing the Department of Justice practice of making no potentially election-swinging revelations within 60 days of the vote.

Without any indictments fanning the media flames, using Russia-gate as a campaign issue may not look like a winning tactic. But even disregarding Mueller’s further findings, all hell may break loose again on Russia-gate if the Democrats win the House and — who knows? — maybe even a Senate majority. 

To me, as a Russian watching U.S. politics with a mixture of wonder, fear and cynicism, the sanity of the Washington establishment is an issue of secondary importance. I know U.S. democracy is real and bottom-up; I saw Americans in far-flung towns caucus earnestly during the 2016 primaries, and I’ve heard them debate policy issues of real importance to them with knowledge and passion.

I know for a fact that neither Putin nor any outsider picked a president for these people. And I’m happy to see, even though the Russia narrative dominated the political and media conversation, that politicians running in the midterms realize their voters care more about issues closer to home. 

American voters’ traditional lack of attention to foreign-policy issues is a sign of political health and sanity. Russians normally share this disposition, and while Putin changed it by whipping up a “patriotic” frenzy after the 2014 Crimea annexation, my fellow countrymen are now reverting to global policy indifference. It’s nice to know that Americans haven’t allowed themselves to be distracted by a search for external enemies and that the midterms are likely to turn on health care, tax and education issues, not on narratives of treason and dark foreign plots.

This gives me hope that Russia won’t be a major issue in the 2020 presidential election either, regardless of where the Mueller investigation leads. One can question the wisdom of U.S. voters’ 2016 choice, but not the basic premise that in a sane country, elections should be fought and won on issues of importance to voters’ daily lives and that a foreign threat becomes one only when war looms.

If the Republicans should lose next week and Trump in 2020, it will be because of how they handle these real issues.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.