The prime-time January 6 committee hearings that begin on Thursday—the first of at least six, which will run until September—are the Democrats’ last, best chance to make the case that Republicans are an existential threat to American democracy. The party is hardly confident that they will make a dime’s worth of difference.
“Democrats aren’t counting on the panel’s work and its focus on the attempt by former president Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election to help them much with voters this fall,” reported The Washington Post on Monday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her caucus that “voters will not cast their ballots based on Jan. 6 and the events that led up to that deadly day” and instead will be focused on “the cost of food, gas prices and what the party is doing to help families.” These remarks, the Post noted, “underscored the growing belief in the party that views on the insurrection have hardened along party lines like so many issues.”
Democrats are right to be pessimistic about the ability of these hearings to move the electoral needle, particularly with regard to the upcoming midterms. A great deal of salacious, incriminating information about the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—and the involvement of high-ranking Republicans, including then-President Donald Trump—has already leaked out. Despite the fact that this information illuminates a concerted effort to overturn a legitimate democratic election, it has barely registered as an important issue for voters. Pelosi and her fellow Democrats are thus correct that the need to talk with voters about inflation and the larger economy is paramount. (If they’re serious about this, they should devote as much time to tasks such as fighting to reinstate the child tax credit—this is an area where Democrats have lost ground with voters who probably don’t need to be convinced that coups d’état are bad.)
But the fact that the hearings are likely to have a negligible impact in November doesn’t mean that they won’t be significant. In fact, there’s a strong argument that turning them into a televised spectacle will yield both immediate and long-term results—even if it doesn’t stave off the coming midterms bloodbath. Some things are important enough to do whether they win you elections or not.
There are signs that the Democrats understand this. The Mueller report and the impeachments of Donald Trump were hardly failures, even if they failed to yield massive electoral dividends. (In the era of negative partisanship, it can be hard to change anybody’s mind.) But these were also grounded in older media and political environments. The Mueller report faltered in large part because it depended on a mainstream press and a unified Congress to draw impossible-to-ignore conclusions from its damning findings—too tough an ask in this hyperpartisan moment. Trump’s first impeachment suffered from the same malady, along with being haunted by Watergate: While a case was clearly laid out that Trump had attempted to enlist a foreign power to interfere in the election, the current internet and cable news era facilitates a different attention span than 1973’s media era. The second impeachment, meanwhile, managed to be both too rushed and too delayed; by the time the trial began, Trump had been out of office for nearly three weeks.
The January 6 committee is going to take a different approach, bringing in former ABC News president James Goldston, who ran both Good Morning America and Nightline, to create something for public consumption—and more suited to the modern media era. Per Axios’s Mike Allen, “Goldston is busily producing Thursday’s 8 p.m. ET hearing as if it were a blockbuster investigative special” and “plans to make it raw enough so that skeptical journalists will find the material fresh, and chew over the disclosures in future coverage.” This is the right idea: While some of the committee’s findings have leaked out, there’s new footage of the assault on the Capitol to air and new information to pass along. There’s a good chance this will make the hearings a newsmaking event.
This is, in theory, one way to cut through the noise of social media and cable news (though not all cable news; Fox News won’t be covering the hearings live): emphasize short clips and sound bites that will then lead the next day’s coverage. Again, no one should be under any illusion that what will unfold is going to reverse anyone’s electoral fortunes. But there are advantages for Democrats to claim: They will have the opportunity to dominate the news cycle, and on terms more favorable than they’ve enjoyed in recent months. More attention on the Trump-led attempt to overturn an election will crowd out other negative headlines—and deservedly so.
And even if the hearings won’t play a significant role in the upcoming midterms, they may play a crucial role in specific elections. One Democratic pollster told The Washington Post that “Jan. 6 can become a critical issue in a campaign if the Republican runs on a platform that the last election was stolen—such as in the case of Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania; J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for an open Senate seat in Ohio; and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who’s running for an open Senate seat in Alabama.”
“People are very concerned about those involved and who supported those involved on January 6,” the pollster told the Post. These elections, particularly in Pennsylvania, will be crucial for Democrats; having added material to throw at pro-insurrectionist candidates could be pivotal. (Many attribute Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin’s success to his ability to remain at a distance from the events of January 6 and the Big Lie in which Trump and his ultras traffic.)
But it’s important to remember that 2022 is not the only critical election for Democrats. In 2024, Donald Trump will likely be the Republican nominee for president. These hearings are also an early way for Democrats to get their message across to voters in the next presidential election. They’ve struggled thus far to make Trump and Republicans pay for what happened on January 6, 2021. Starting Thursday, they’ll get one last shot.