Impeachment launch: Can Dems make the case stick -- and make it quick? Update: "Now we get to fight back"

Last week, Bill Moyers demanded that PBS cover the public impeachment hearings as though it were still 1974. Today, House Democrats will have to operate an impeachment probe with an electorate that belongs to 2019, and with a case that’s much less clearly inclined toward such an extreme step. If they can’t make the case stick, they risk a potentially bigger backfire than Republicans did in 1998 — when Bill Clinton undisputedly committed perjury.

Politico’s curtain-raiser offers Democrats a pessimistic outlook for a Watergate repeat. They don’t have the same case, and more importantly, they don’t have the same kind of statesmen making it:

There have been but three realistic attempts to force an American president to leave office before the end of his term. The two that failed—those targeting Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—are generally viewed as excessively partisan endeavors. The Nixon model is our gold standard. Can today’s representatives—as they prepare for public impeachment hearings regarding President Donald Trump—match the performance of their predecessors, from that summer of 1974? It is unlikely. The times, the norms, our politics have changed. A look back to 1974 shows just how. …

It is not at all clear America will be treated to a repeat performance with Trump’s potential impeachment. Only seven weeks have passed since the partial transcript of Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president was released. And while that transcript serves as a sort of “smoking gun,” showing him abusing the powers of his office to blacken the reputation of a Democratic rival—and fits his pattern of inviting foreign interference in U.S. elections—seven weeks is not a long time to educate generations of busy, jaundiced Americans in the rules of impeachment or the turns of the alleged plot. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, and his colleagues must, in the space of a few weeks or months, do what the Senate Watergate Committee, the federal courts, a special prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee spent a year of private and public hearings to accomplish. They must investigate and educate, as well as argue.

One point of order here: the transcript was not “a sort of smoking gun,” a construct that sounds a lot like being “a little bit pregnant.” There was no smoking gun at all in it, not for “quid pro quo” and certainly not for bribery. It was not “perfect” either, contra Donald Trump, as bringing up one’s electoral rivals on such a call is at best petty beyond belief. That, however, is a comportment argument, not a high crime or misdemeanor, especially with the lack of any pressure, demand, or trade offered.

Watergate had statutory crimes at its center. This has none, and Adam Schiff’s depositions don’t uncover any either, which brings us to Politico’s next point:

Schiff’s efforts as educator will be further complicated by the format. The Judiciary panelists in 1974 interrogated witnesses in private and offered written, prepared remarks when the TV lights came on. When the nation is watching and a gaffe can lead to fatal ridicule, it’s safer for a politician to read a statement or engage in a planned colloquy. Even that collection of Judiciary lawyers in 1974 left the actual debating to a cohort of bright and nimble-minded members of Congress who excelled at rhetorical give and take.

The Intelligence Committee’s chore this week is a more complicated task. The committee similarly interviewed witnesses in private, but it now will repeat the exercise on-air. Its members can ask arch and demeaning questions, interrupt and voice outrage. Both parties have shown their abilities, in today’s more partisan and polarized era, to disrupt, divert and distract—and to employ slanted cable TV shows and the uncurated yack of social media to help them do so.

It’s not just the format, although that will be critical in this calculus. It’s that there isn’t a case for a crime, either. There’s a case for opposing re-election on the basis of how Trump handles foreign relations, but not evidence that Trump has committed any overt or even covert acts of corruption. Schiff will essentially argue that a policy dispute and a distaste for one’s opponents equates to a removable offense. That’s not an “educator” task; it’s an advocate task, and Schiff’s spent the last three years shoring up his credentials as the latter, not the former.

Back to the format, which risks a lot more than tedium. In 1974, the public had been primed for the fight by two years of unfolding actual crimes, and had only a few choices for entertainment. Both of those matter in 2019, as I argue in my column for The Week, in putting pressure on House Democrats to make an impeachment case quickly. If the audience gets lost in the weeds of partisan bickering, they won’t stick around for long:

But just because more people than ever before can watch these hearings doesn’t mean they will. While in 1974, Americans were somewhat limited in their viewing options: It was either the hearings, or the soap operas and game shows that populated the dial. Today, most Americans have hundreds of choices for their viewing pleasure, and even under the best of circumstances for the most hopelessly addicted news junkies, committee hearings are anything but pleasurable viewing. If Democrats can’t make a dramatic case immediately for staying tuned, viewers will “touch that dial” and move on.

Do House Democrats have a case ready for changing minds about the necessity of removing a president? Based on their initial witness list, they have their work cut out for them. House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif) announced a week earlier that their lead witnesses would be former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, former Ukraine charges d’affaires William Taylor, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. All three occupied or still occupy significant positions of trust and authority and will provide some gravitas to the proceedings.

Unfortunately for Schiff, what they won’t provide is any direct testimony about a quid pro quo involving Trump — the very point on which Democrats will argue for Trump’s removal. The depositions for all three have been released to the public, and not only do they not contain any eyewitness accounts of demands for investigation of the Biden family in return for U.S. aid to Ukraine, Yovanovitch in particular testified that she was unaware of any official policy tying aid to an investigation of Ukraine energy giant Burisma, on the board of which Hunter Biden served. “There’s no official policy,” Yovanovitch told Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.), and she didn’t wonder about any unofficial policy until Politico first raised the issue months later, Yovanovitch testified. …

None of this adds up to a compelling case for abuse of power, even if the witnesses might have criticisms (legitimate or otherwise) of Trump’s policies and deportment. House Democrats will ask viewers to slog through hours of committee protocol, arguments, speeches, and Beltway minutia without much of a payoff except to amplify Democrats’ general complaints about Trump that they have made since his election three years ago.

If they haven’t made a clear-cut case for a crime worthy of impeachment and removal — as opposed to the campaign for impeachment Schiff and House Democrats have been waging for three long years — even those who initially tuned in for Watergate II will tune out, maybe as soon as Friday. Voters will have heard most of the complaints already and will figure they can hear all of this again when Trump runs for re-election in the fall of 2020. If they want to spend their afternoons watching soap operas, they can ask the networks to put their favorites back on the air again.

Update: Republicans plan to make it interesting, anyway. Jon Karl reports that the White House and House Republicans feel that the gloves are finally off: