The results of a new Washington Post/University of Maryland poll suggest the scope of the problems facing the House Select Committee as it gears up to hold public hearings on the events of January 6, 2021. Unsurprisingly, those results reveal a stark partisan divide that is unlikely to be altered by even the most gripping public testimony.
The poll shows that people cannot even agree about whether the event was violent. While 54% of those surveyed characterize the protesters who stormed the Capitol as “mostly violent,” only 26% of Republicans agree with that characterization. More than one third of Republicans describe the protesters as “mostly peaceful,” compared to 5% of Democrats.
Nor is there agreement about former President Trump’s role in those events. 92% of Democrats now think that he bears a great or good deal of responsibility for what happened, but that number drops to 57% among independents and 27% among Republicans.
Similarly, the Wall Street Journal says that its interviews with voters across the U.S. reveal “disparate impressions of the day, with some describing it as a dangerous attack on democracy, others viewing it as a protest that got out of hand and still others saying Democrats and the news media have overblown the severity of the attack.”
What to do?
Again, the divide is considerable. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released on January 2 reports that 82% of Democrats and 58% of independents support or strongly support the House Select Committee. That number dips to 40% among Republicans.
74% of Republicans tell pollsters that they have already “heard enough” about January 6 and what “led to the events of that day.” In contrast, 59% of Democrats and 38% of independents want to “hear more” before making up their minds.
Hidden in these numbers is a group whose preferences could matter in the long run. Those independents who support the committee and want to learn more about January 6 are the group to keep in mind as the House Select Committee designs its public hearings.
Doing so won’t be easy. And it will risk disappointing the most ardent never-Trumpers, some of whom want hearings about January 6 to function like show trials: in their view, the evidence educed should only confirm pre-existing conclusions about what happened and who is responsible.
The Atlantic quotes MSNBC columnist Hayes Brown, who captured this desire vividly: “There’s still an obsession among elected Democrats, professional politicos and the media writ large with finding the piece of evidence that will make unavoidably clear, once and for all, that the former president engineered the attack on the Capitol.”
Alongside Democrats looking to the House committee to produce a smoking gun that will inexorably point to Trump’s guilt, we should recognize that nearly the entire Republican Party is equally insistent that nothing could lead them to publicly acknowledge Trump’s guilt.
To convince independents, the committee’s proceedings and public hearings must avoid both these extremes. They should be, and appear to be, fair.
Here there are important lessons to be learned from the experience of the Senate Watergate Committee which carried out its own inquiry under the glare of television lights from May to November, 1973.
Unlike the House Select Committee members, all of whom already voted to impeach Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection, none of the seven members of the Senate Watergate Committee took a stand on President Nixon’s fitness to remain in office until long after their committee had held its public hearings and finished its work.
When the Watergate hearings began, Nixon, who had won a landslide re-election in November 1972, had a 48% approval rating. At the time, 53% of the American public thought that the Watergate affairs and its investigations were “just politics” rather than being matters of serious public concern.
The televised Watergate hearings were the focus of enormous public attention, and they made a big difference in the way the American public viewed both Watergate and Nixon.
When the hearings ended, Nixon’s approval had fallen to 26%. By then, 53% also viewed Watergate as a serious matter. What the Pew Research Center calls an “overwhelming” percentage of the public (71%) had come to believe that Nixon was culpable of wrongdoing, at least to some extent.
How did that change come about? The hearings were serious and somber and took on the appearance of a trial. The Watergate Committee also was well served by the performances of both its majority counsel, Sam Dash, and its minority counsel, Fred Thompson. They were thoroughly prepared and given ample time to examine and cross-examine evidence and witnesses favorable and damaging to Nixon.
The hearings were conducted with a lawyer-like focus on Republican Senator Howard Baker’s famous summary of what the committee wanted to find out: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
From start to finish, the Watergate hearings exemplified a commitment to what scholars call “procedural justice.”
Of course those were different times, signaled by the vote establishing what was officially called the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which passed 77-0. One cannot expect that the January 6 committee will command the same attention or change as many minds as its Watergate predecessor.
Yet, even in this era, independents will be watching and assessing the committee’s conduct and its process. These are the people whose views about January 6 and Trump’s involvement could be shaped or changed by public hearings. It bears remembering that they are also the people whose votes for Joe Biden were decisive in 2020.
With that in mind, the committee should do its best to hire a powerful and persuasive minority counsel to defend and speak for the former President, even if he himself denounces the hearings and wants no part of them.
Independents also will care whether the House Select Committee treats the people who appear before it with dignity and respect. They will watch to see if committee members are interested in hearing all sides and cross-examining with equal vigor all witnesses, assuming that some of Trump’s defenders eventually show up and testify.
That’s a big if, and there are many elements of the committee hearings that may be impossible for the Democrats to control. But doing their level best to create an atmosphere of fairness and seriousness is necessary not only to persuade independents about what happened behind the scenes on January 6, but also to turn the committee’s findings into a voting issue.