What Democrats are getting wrong about Trump-Russia scandal

  • The Trump/Russia scandals are already giving the Democrats as much political capital as possible.
  • But damaging scandals don't always turn into significant political victories for the other side.
  • The Democrats need to take a page from Newt Gingrich's book to really score with the voters.

The Trump-Russia scandal may be the greatest political gift to Democrats since Watergate. And the news of Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian lawyer in June of 2016 is the latest shiny bauble under the tree.

The bad news for the Democrats is that they're squandering this political gift of almost endless bad publicity for President Donald Trump by overplaying their hand.

The right and wrong ways to handle a scandal-ridden administration are all laid out very clearly in Washington history. Democrats should follow an almost ready-made script to take full advantage.

Let's look at what three relatively recent examples teach us. At one point or another, the Clinton, Reagan, and Nixon White Houses were under big clouds of scandal that threatened their abilities to govern and lead the nation.

Many might conclude that the Democrats' general conduct during Nixon's Watergate is the path to follow since Nixon actually did resign from office in 1974 and two years later the Democrats won the White House back.

But did they really win? Remember that the winner in that election was Jimmy Carter, an ex-Governor of Georgia who won in large part because he was a Democrat who had not been a part of Washington and the push back on the White House in Congress during the Watergate scandal.

But he won only a razor thin victory over President Gerald Ford, the man who actually pardoned Nixon for his potential Watergate crimes! The fact that Ford missed getting elected by just 30 electoral votes goes to show how ambivalent the American people were about the Democrats even after a Republican president had just been forced to resign in disgrace. And four years later, Carter was badly routed out of office himself.

Writing in Politico in May, author Geoffrey Kabaservice even said Watergate actually helped Republicans in the long run:

Ultimately, the aftereffects of the biggest scandal in American politics ended up helping the Republican Party—giving us unprecedented levels of polarization, distrust in government institutions and, leading, ultimately, to President Donald Trump.

And in an even more dire warning to the Democrats, Kabaservice further notes:

... the impeachment crisis and its aftermath produced a corrosive public cynicism about politics and government, reflected in sinking voter turnout rates and a decline of citizen confidence in American institutions that still has not recovered.

Another failure for the Democrats came in 1986-87, when they obsessed over the Reagan Iran-Contra Affair. Not only did Reagan not resign, he never really suffered a major blow to his popularity. His hand-picked successor, George H.W. Bush, won a 400-plus electoral college/eight percentage point popular vote landslide in 1988. While the Democrats should have been spending more time crafting their national message and finding a winning candidate, they were off chasing Colonel Oliver North and international arms dealers.

That brings us to the Bill Clinton Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky scandals and the simultaneous right way/wrong way path to dealing with an administration hampered by embarrassing scandal.

At first, the Republicans took the wrong path on President Clinton. They harped on the fact that he won only 43 percent of the popular vote. They broke tradition and filibustered his initial economic stimulus plan presented to Congress during the initial "honeymoon" period for a new president. And in early 1994, they seized on the Whitewater land deal scandal and attempted to connect it to President Clinton and Hillary Clinton by successfully pushing for the appointment of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate the matter. In a sign of just how far afield these kinds of investigations can become, Starr's Whitewater investigation eventually turned into the Monica Lewinsky/Oval Office adultery scandal.

All of that eventually led to Clinton's impeachment in the House of Representatives and close-call avoidance of a conviction in the Senate. Along the way he was re-elected with wider majorities in 1996 than he enjoyed in 1992, and he left office close to his all-time high in popularity ratings.

But in the midst of all those Republican failures to capitalize on the Clinton scandals, there was then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich who sought a different path. In early 1994, he and other GOP leaders in the House came up with the Contract with America set of 10 goals the Republicans would promise to enact quickly if they were elected to take control of Congress that year.

Instead of harping on Clinton's scandals and failures, Gingrich and Co. presented a real alternative before and during that historic midterm election.

The result was not only a Republican takeover of both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s, but the GOP actually passed the major parts of the Contract with America.

On the issues of tax and welfare reform, they even got President Clinton to go along with them. Clinton and Gingrich began working with each other in 1995 and that led to a significant cut in capital gains taxes and work requirements for welfare that helped kick off the late 90s economic boom. It was a win/win/win.

Fast forward to today and we have a similar opportunity for the Democrats in Congress. As we get closer to the 2018 midterms, they can start to craft their own true agenda or they can keep running on a scandal and opposition-based agenda that's seemingly consuming them 24/7.

Why not craft their own Contract with America and hold a big event on the Capitol steps to announce their three or five clear fixes for Obamacare, what exact corporate tax rate they'd support and the kind of tax reform they'd enact?

If they can't pursue the political points to be scored from the Trump scandal while also addressing the more enduring challenges they were elected to take on, what good are they to the voters? After all, the independent counsel and the news media are already there to make sure the Trump scandals don't go away.

As for finding a compromise issue like Gingrich did with the White House years ago, it turns out there's a pretty good ready-made script for that too. Even during the Obama administration, we know the Democrats were generally willing to make some kind of significant cut to the corporate tax rate.

That would be a good place to start because there's a good argument to be made to their base that working on this tax rate is something they wanted to do before the election and thus does not constitute "getting into bed with Trump."

Either way, the Democrats desperately need to do something different. And unlike the Republicans who are straddled with an ambiguous Republican like President Trump in the White House, they are free to do so. They must come to realize that their brand as we've known it for decades not only lost the general election, but almost lost the primary election to career back-bencher Senator Bernie Sanders who at least offered a different message.

Chances like this don't come very often. When the public is convinced that all the politicians care about are scandals and investigations, real solutions for the countries problems will stand out. It did in 1994, and it would now if the Democrats are smart enough to seize the day.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.