Does the truth matter?

The impeachment inquiry raises existential questions for America

Pres. Trump from the back leaving UN press conference
Pres. Donald Trump exits a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

As one stand-up government official after another speaks credibly and directly about Trump’s  “drug deal” in Ukraine — to borrow a phrase from that great progressive John Bolton — the Republicans, including Trump, have been bullying witnesses, conducting a smear campaign against a highly respected ambassador who bravely fought corruption, and questioning the loyalty of a U.S. military officer who spoke movingly of his family’s embrace of American freedom after fleeing the Soviet Union.

Yet the latest Marquette Law School poll shows Wisconsinites are slightly less enthusiastic about impeachment than they were a month ago, and are generally feeling better about Trump.

It doesn’t seem possible that close scrutiny of the impeachment hearings is what is driving public opinion in our swing state.

And, in fact, it’s not. 

The Marquette poll shows that only 33% of Republicans and 39% of Democrats say they are following the impeachment proceedings “very closely.” A majority of those who are actually tuning in — 61% — are convinced that Trump pressed Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Among people who admit they are not following the impeachment proceedings closely at all that number is 34%.

Trump’s defenders are counting on people not paying close attention. That’s why they keep making statements that make no sense if you are actually watching the hearings, suggesting that impeachment is a “show trial” and dependent on “hearsay” — and that the witnesses are all partisan Democrats. 

The Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are also floating their own, discredited theories, like the dangerous idea, refuted by former Trump advisor and Russia expert Fiona Hill, that Russian meddling in the 2016 election wasn’t real, and that it was Ukraine that interfered, on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

Creating an echo chamber for ditto heads is the Republican strategy for shoring up the base. And it just might work.

One reason people voted for Trump in the first place was that they see him as a representative of disrespected, downtrodden, working class white people. Trump plays to his base’s sense that he — and by extension they — are embattled targets of snobby liberal elites. That’s why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was so cautious about pursuing impeachment in the first place. Politically, it was never a slam-dunk. 

The reason to pursue impeachment is not, contrary to the Republican script, to score points against the president in time for the next election. On the contrary, the sense that Trump is aggrieved and persecuted by official Washington feeds one of the president’s favorite campaign narratives about himself. 

Democrats are in a perilous position. As members of Congress, they have to stay the course and impeach a rogue president who used his office to bribe another country for his own gain. The obstruction, intimidation and smears that are going on as the inquiry unfolds just make the case more urgent. Members of Congress must do their job on impeachment. But voters won’t necessarily reward them for it.

As usual, there is a debate within the Democratic Party about whether to be bold and decisive or to try to gentle along uncommitted voters, like the Wisconsinites who switched in 2016 from supporting Obama to voting for Trump.

Roger Cohen wrote an op-ed in The New York Times recently promoting the idea of a Bloomberg candidacy, based on conversations with a wealthy Republican friend who is worried about his 401(k) and voted for Trump — but might be willing to switch to a “sensible” Democra — one who doesn’t rock the boat.

The latest Marquette poll will help feed that line of thinking. 

But here is another thought: Now, more than ever, the Democrats need to have the courage of their convictions. The extraordinarily toxic politics of the last four years, and the attack on our democracy, including an explicit drive across the country to suppress the votes of minorities, young people, and poor people, demands a robust response. It might be hard to get people to tune in, but we badly need the kind of leadership that is prepared to step up and do something about it.

Instead of worrying about how the public perceives impeachment, we need leaders in Washington who will do the right thing, and tell the truth to the public. 

There is even a political argument for it. Marquette poll director Charles Franklin points out that Democrats in Wisconsin expressed only tepid support for impeachment last April, before the Democratic leadership in the House decided to move forward. Once that decision was made, voters came around very quickly, with support for impeaching and removing the President rising to between 70% and 80% by October. That level of support declined by less than the margin of error in the latest poll. And that was before the last few days of damaging testimony.

Leadership makes a difference. Getting the facts out makes a difference. But most of all, as Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) put it in his closing statement on Thursday, “We must ask ourselves, what is our duty?” 

As Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) said, describing the sheer nastiness of Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, and his willingness to smear U.S. officials who got in his way: “If we allow this to stand, it will become the new normal. … It corrupts our democracy.”

In the end, standing up for the truth, and for democracy, is the only political move that matters.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.