The Memo

The Memo: Jan. 6 hearings open new front in battle to control political agenda

Members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot speak during its first prime-time hearing.
Greg Nash
Members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot speak during its first prime-time hearing.

A new battle has broken out in Washington, this time over control of the political agenda.

The first public hearing of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, held on Thursday evening, put Republicans on defense for the first time in months.

The hearing offered vivid reminders of a dark day in American democracy — and of former President Trump’s role in inciting it. 

The panel promises to deliver more damning details about Trump’s involvement in a series of further proceedings beginning Monday.

The committee’s big moment — watched by roughly 20 million people — also landed on political terrain that is enormously unfavorable for Democrats, however. President Biden’s party is seeking to defend meager majorities in both houses of Congress this November.

Within 24 hours, the dramatic hearing had been supplanted at the top of several major news organization’s websites by a fresh barrage of grim economic news. 

On Friday morning, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed inflation climbing to 8.6 percent, the highest figure since the early 1980s.

By the end of the day, the three major stock indices — the Dow Jones, S&P 500 and Nasdaq — had each declined between 2.7 and 3.5 percentage points. The New York Times noted that the broad-based S&P has declined during nine of the last 10 weeks.

As if all that were not enough, gas prices are continuing to rise, with the national average per gallon surpassing $5. According to AAA, the national average stood at $5.01 on Sunday.

The overall effect is of a split-screen — on one side, a replay of the chaos of Jan. 6, on the other a mosaic of economic pain.

Republicans, including those well outside the party’s MAGA wing, insist the economic side of the picture is much more important from an electoral standpoint.

GOP strategist Alex Conant acknowledged that the Jan. 6 inquiry “is important for history and for holding people accountable.”

But “pocketbook issues almost always drive voting behavior,” he added. “In a time with historic inflation and dropping consumer confidence, the economy is going to be the number one issues voters care about, barring a national security crisis.”

Many Democrats argue that this is simply not the point. 

Jan. 6 was such a threat to American democracy, they say, that investigating it simply has to be a priority — not just in terms of assigning culpability but in trying to protect the nation against ever suffering such a crisis again.

“If we don’t get justice, then we can’t guarantee our democracy,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press NOW” Friday.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley told this column he was reluctant even to get into a discussion of the political ramifications of the Jan. 6 committee’s work.

“I don’t claim to know how it’s going to play out but it was the right thing to do,” Manley said. “All I know is that the former president and his team need to be held accountable, and the rest is going to take care of itself.”

Even so, one obvious challenge for the Jan. 6 committee — which includes two anti-Trump Republicans, Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), alongside seven Democrats — is keeping the public’s attention.

The massive TV audience for the first hearing was evidence of acute public interest — but it was also helped along hugely by prime-time scheduling and the willingness of the major broadcast networks to preempt their regular programming in order to carry it. Monday’s hearing, which takes place during the day, will not have the same advantages.

Opinion polls show a predictable partisan split on the merits of the committee’s work. 

Republican insiders argue the hearings will ultimately become little more than background noise — and could be seen as a distraction from the economic issues that are felt far more viscerally be voters.

President Biden, mindful of this danger, has been relatively low-key about the panel’s work so far. His aides seem more focused on pushing a positive economic message that stresses the prodigious job growth during his tenure.

Some Democrats argue that the Jan. 6 committee has left enough loose ends dangling from its initial hearing to interest the public for the longer haul. 

Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh cited intriguing details on issues like GOP members of Congress allegedly seeking pardons from the outgoing president.

But even Longabaugh acknowledged that the renewed focus on Jan. 6 would have a modest rather than seismic impact on the political landscape.

“Clearly the Republicans were thrown back on their heels — despite their puffed-out chests and bravado,” he said. “But I also don’t want to take it too far in a political context. I think Democrats still face big headwinds, whether it’s inflation, the economy or Biden’s ratings. I don’t think this is going to upend the elections.”

That’s just fine with the GOP. 

In a Friday afternoon email to reporters, the Republican National Committee’s recap of the week emphasized inflation, gas prices, an alleged attempt to kill conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, voter enthusiasm among Republicans and the relative rarity with which Biden gives media interviews.

The big inquiry into the attack on the Capitol did not merit a mention.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Alex Conant Biden Jan. 6 hearings Jim Manley Pramila Jayapal

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