What the Democrats should have learned from the special counsel

What the Democrats should have learned from the special counsel
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We have seen this movie before. Former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE spent a year telling us what we already knew in 2016, when candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE made his infamous public plea, “Russia, if you are listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

We knew it definitively after numerous national security officials had announced that Russia was deliberately interfering with the 2016 election and responsible for the Wikileaks hack, and Trump went well beyond what normally would have disqualified a candidate in the minds of voters to what should have led to a Justice Department inquiry and what should certainly have led Democrats to change the narrative from the contents of the emails of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump touts economic agenda in battleground Ohio The Memo: Campaigns gird for rush of early voting Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat MORE to the character of candidate Trump.

The right knows what the left refuses to comprehend. What moves voters is not primarily the facts but the way leaders present those facts. It is a lesson they should have learned from the election of Trump, the saga of James ComeyJames Brien ComeyTrump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing Trump knocks Sally Yates ahead of congressional testimony MORE, and the conclusion of the special counsel investigation. It looked like they finally got it right this time and have moved at breakneck speed since the whistleblower came forward, but they now seem to be gravitating back toward reading voters the Congressional Record and assuming that the facts speak for themselves. They really do not.


Facts are politically inert unless they are embedded in simple language, evocative imagery, and compelling narratives, which head off potential counternarratives at the pass. Once again, Democrats have the language wrong. What is wrong with saying quid pro quo? Most Americans do not speak Latin. Quid pro quo is the language of constitutional law and the courtroom, not the kitchen table. If you want to convince people who speak Spanish, do not talk to them in English. Likewise, if you want to convince voters who speak English, do not talk to them in Latin.

Despite weeks of discussions on television, I suspect if you polled the public, even the educated public, and provided a multiple choice test with at least two plausible answers, the vast majority would likely get it wrong. Whether it is irrelevant that the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors is an endlessly debated argument about which, as a voter, I should not even know. Quid pro quo is also about as evocative as it is unintelligible to the average voter. It is the sequel to obstruction, which Democrats never explained to Americans in everyday language.

How about the imagery? Where are the descriptions of the blood spilled in Russian incursions into Crimea and Ukraine? Where is the harsh criticism of Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe tragedy of Trump's foreign policy Steele's dossier: 'Clown show' or the greatest Russian coup? US 'deeply troubled' by escalating conflict in Libya MORE, the wolf at the borders with his tanks as the Crimeans and Ukrainians bravely struggle for survival? Where is all the television coverage of what we have been told repeatedly is gripping deposition testimony by amazing men such as Ambassador William Taylor, with impeccable credentials and integrity, as we heard about Mueller?

Democrats have strong reasons to hold this initial phase of investigations in secret, but still they might want to let the public in on the secret. All voters have heard is legalistic language about grand juries, leaving the door wide open for the Republican narrative of a partisan witch hunt. I heard the first argument for the secrecy this week. Democrats should have explained from the very beginning that they do not want witnesses to hear each other because they do not want them to coordinate their stories. They must tell that to the public, otherwise this does look like a partisan affair, and all the times voters hear “I cannot discuss that” from Democrats simply bolsters the opposing Republican narrative.

As for the Democratic narrative, Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package House Intelligence panel opens probe into DHS's involvement in response to protests MORE has done an extraordinary job at both leading and speaking clearly, at least dropping ominous bread crumbs to voters about why they should be concerned. But the imagery is all wrong. Surely someone tasked with staging must have told him about the camera angle from which he speaks every day from the House steps, with his head moving from left to right, with the cable news networks recording from below. It makes him appear unnatural and distant. We gauge truth telling from whether someone looks us in the eyes.

It was a relief to hear that Democrats are backing off from delaying a full House vote on articles of impeachment until after Thanksgiving because that would be game time for Trump, who will argue that voters will decide at the ballot box rather than circumvent an election year impeachment. Democrats can still spend more time collecting evidence, but if they do, they will likely continue to do so as the opposition party in 2020.

Drew Westen is a psychology professor at Emory University and author of “Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”