Primetime Jan. 6 hearing singed all parties — 4 predictions
The primetime Jan. 6 Committee hearing mostly resulted in losers. Former President Trump took another hit — just the latest in a nasty losing streak. But the Democrats and the legacy media managed to make themselves losers as well. In the end, the committee is not likely to move the election needle, but it will significantly affect politics for 2022 and 2024.
Surprisingly, the committee put its best foot forward. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) allowed only Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) to speak and engage in questioning. Normally congressional hearings are a circus of grandstanding by various members as they pursue their personal agendas and showboat for the media. That, no doubt, will be reserved for hearings outside of prime time.
By engaging in a sober fashion and focusing on the words of Trump staff and edited video, the story was more powerful. The worst thing the committee could have done was to edit together an overly dramatic, flashy video. The video presented — much of it appearing to be body cam and cellphone footage — made the rioters look like a rabble of lunatics. Bashing a female police officer with a metal fence is not a good look, to say the least.
Takeaway #1: Merrick Garland cannot escape prosecuting Trump
The testimony and production make it practically impossible for Merrick Garland not to charge Trump and bring him to trial. It may still be a difficult step from riot to proving beyond a reasonable doubt Trump’s guilt, but the Democratic activist base is unlikely to accept anything less.
This demand is perilous for Garland. If Trump were to be tried and acquitted, he would walk straight back into the White House. Absent demands from the Democratic Party, Garland would not want to try Trump unless he was 99.9 percent certain of a guilty verdict. Now the pressure to bring him to trial will be immense.
And a plea bargain won’t cut it — not only is Trump highly unlikely to accept a plea deal, the Democratic base will absolutely demand a trial and jail time. As bad as President Biden’s domestic troubles are, he at least has high approval within his party. If his attorney general denies Democrats a Trump trial, it’s all over for Biden.
Takeaway #2: Trump loses, again
It’s death by a thousand political cuts for Trump. He is on a nasty losing streak in party primaries, punctuated by his humiliation in Georgia, where the Republicans who refused to play ball with his election conspiracies won the primaries — and they are not alone. No matter how much Trump plays the victim, a trial is just more drama the public does not want.
There might be an initial surge of sympathy for Trump among conservatives and Republicans — especially after the Democrats’ fumbling response to the recent threat against Justice Brett Kavanaugh — but fatigue is slowly settling in around all things Trump. His primary endorsement has been shown to be worth only a few percentage points. While his approval among Republicans is still over 80 percent, the most recent Morning Consult ballot test against Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis has Trump at 51 percent — down 30 points from his approval.
And expect more furious explosions. Knowing how Trump thinks, he is almost certainly in a rage about every person from within his circle whose words were used against him: Mike Pence, Bill Barr, Jason Miller, Gen. Mark Milley and even daughter Ivanka have likely shot up to the top of the “enemies” list, at least for the moment. If he unloads that ire publicly, which he’s always tempted to do, that’s just more drama for a Republican electorate looking for a winner, not a whiner.
Takeaway #3: Biden, Pelosi, Schumer and Democratic activists fumble again
Naturally, Democratic activists, President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could not resist stepping on the investigation. The combination of protests at the homes of conservative Supreme Court justices and Pelosi’s delay on a bill that would strengthen security for the Supreme Court not only make Democrats look like hypocrites, it gives Republicans further reason to dismiss the Jan. 6 committee. In his first televised interview, Biden declined to condemn protests and the threat.
Some of the legacy media also did itself few favors by downplaying news about the attempted murder of Justice Kavanaugh; Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) previous incendiary comments are getting new life via highlight reels, and the refusal of the liberal media commentariat, Biden, and Democratic leaders to vigorously condemn threats against conservative Supreme Court justices makes their claims of principled defense of the Constitution seem empty.
April polling by YouGov asked if voters thought the committee was a serious attempt to get to the truth or just political: 67 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of independents thought the committee was just political, with just 7 percent and 22 percent, respectively, thinking it was serious. Democratic hypocrisy over threats to the Supreme Court will only reinforce that opinion.
Takeaway #4: The hearings won’t shift the midterm elections
Maybe the hearings will give Democratic turnout a bit of a bump, but it won’t fundamentally alter how the midterm elections are likely to go for the Democrats — catastrophically.
Viewership ratings for the hearing were not immediately available, but looking at broadcast network ratings for the most recent Thursday at 8 p.m., CBS and NBC pull about 6.8 million viewers. Using June 1 on ABC as a better comp than the NBA playoff game adds another 2.26 million viewers. CNN and MSNBC cable viewership is about 1.8 million for a grand total of 10.86 million possible viewers. Throw in Fox Business, PBS and C-SPAN plus online and you might get to 12-13 million. And that’s for just the 8 o’clock hour — viewership tails off markedly after 8:30. The real winner might have been the National Hockey League and its playoff matchup.
Who was watching outside of Trump-hating Democrats, political junkies and defense lawyers? Most Americans will likely get their coverage via social media, second-hand reports and other sources filtered through whatever partisan lens the Facebook algorithm decides.
This issue is simply overwhelmed by current events. Rising inflation, the Uvalde school shooting, and war in Ukraine are all much higher on the agenda than a riot that happened 17 months ago. The recent Qunnipiac poll puts inflation as the top issue, with gun violence second. Reuters has the economy also at the top.
In the most recent YouGov poll, Democrats trail Republicans in all measures when it comes to the midterms — and that’s with a 5-6 point oversample of Democrats. Voters expect the GOP to win both the Senate and the House. Independents prefer a Republican over a Democratic Senate (38 percent to 25 percent) and House (41 percent to 26 percent). Republicans are more enthusiastic, are paying more attention and have higher intention to vote in the midterms than Democrats.
If the hearing was intended to set the stage for charging Trump, then it served its purpose.
As to showing a threat to democracy and the Constitution, that was not so well supported. The rioters were certainly dangerous, but they looked like a convention of everyone’s crazy uncle, a Lollapalooza of lunatics who collectively dropped some bad acid and decided to trash the nearest building.
In the end, the fallout all comes down to Trump.
Will the hearings help Democrats by provoking Trump to more fury and threats, boosting their voter turnout? Or will the hearings add to Trump fatigue among Republicans, allowing the party to walk away from Trump and focus on the bumbling Biden administration? Hard to say which, but interesting to watch.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.