As a boy, I used to watch a television show with a weekly gag titled “MasterJoke Theatre.” A pompous egghead smoked a pipe in a leather-bound chair in a richly appointed library, told a joke, and got a pie in the face for his trouble.
What the Democrats launched on the Hill this week is their own variant, with Adam Schiff sitting in the big chair as the designated pompous E. Call it MasterTroll Theatre. The Democrats know they’re engaged in a futile exercise that exists only to draw attention. They don’t have the muscle to take out the president. They read the David Brooks column that explained that nobody between the coasts is paying attention to this drama. As for what their witnesses will say, the Democrats have already leaked the pertinent facts to the press, which eagerly provided them to the public.
And the president’s approval rating? It’s 44.1 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average. The day before the Ukraine transcript was released, it was 45.0 percent. After six weeks of set-your-hair-on-fire-and-do-the-funky-chicken impeachment hoo-ha, the Democrats have succeeded in reducing the president’s support by not quite one full percentage point. Minus red-hot public demand, the Republican senators won’t be escorting the president out the door.
Brooks noted in his column that an Ohio professor discovered that, of 80 students in his class, 78 had not heard about the impeachment saga and all 80 said they were uninterested anyway. Hence the Democrats’ hopecasting that getting the TV networks to sign on as their promotional partners Wednesday might turn their sad charade into a national obsession. “The first hour of a hearing and the first hearing has got to be a blockbuster,” a senior Democrat told CNN beforehand.
So . . . how’d that go? “Impeachment hearings play big on TV, less so with viewers,” ran a headline on, gulp, NBC News? NBC News is a television news outfit. For it to admit its own programming fizzled is not its usual habit. Does McDonald’s post a giant sign outside saying, “Yelp Reviewers Dislike the Quarter Pounder”? NBC’s story quoted Dallas businessman Travis Smallwood as saying, on behalf of the Republic, “I’m sort of paying attention, but not really.” Smallwood went so far as to say he thought Trump had broken the law (which one?) but added, “It’s not like they’re going to be able to remove him from office.”
Other reviews were even more harsh: “Impeachment moves along like a kidney stone,” wrote my colleague Jim Geraghty. “I realize those of us in the news business aren’t supposed to admit this, but impeachment bores me.” Jim does this for a living. This is supposed to be the year’s biggest political event. It’s like Jim Nantz interrupting the Super Bowl to say, “Too bad football is so dull.” Peter Baker of the New York Times seconded Geraghty minus the vivid language: “It was not clear that minds were changed. Certainly they were not inside the room. . . . Nor were there any immediate signs that the hearing penetrated the general public. . . . There was little sense of a riveted country putting everything aside to watch à la Watergate.”
Politico, whose relationship to impeachment might be expected to resemble a German Shepherd’s to a pound of raw sirloin, picked listlessly at its meal: “One surprising thing we heard a few times from people of both parties,” read the Politico Playbook, is “that the American public simply believes politics and government are dirty, and is not surprised that the president held up military aid to force an investigation into a political rival. In fact, there’s a theory that this is seen as business as usual.” So an outlet whose brand is being fantastically plugged in to the Washington scene is surprised that the American people are not surprised that politics is dirty? I doubt Politico is actually that naïve. What it is, is disappointed. The Democrats’ “blockbuster” turned out about as well as Terminator: Dark Fate.
Schiff’s trolling game isn’t working, but even so, two sides can join the fun. When (if) this thing lumbers over to the Senate for a trial, the president’s backers will stage their own trolling show. They could call Hunter Biden as a witness. Hell, why not call Joe Biden as a witness? The GOP is already thinking about how to pull a “We’re not locked in here with you — you’re locked in here with us!” moment. Republican senator Richard Burr of North Carolina let slip this prophecy the other day: “The day the [Senate] takes it up, we go into session six days a week from 12:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m.,” with the trial to last six to eight weeks, which would certainly disrupt Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s winter plans to lock up their party’s presidential nomination even as their Senate colleagues are hammering away at all things Biden. “These witnesses that they’re calling are politically motivated,” groused Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) of the GOP. “Republicans are turning this into a partisan issue.” Ya think? AOC may be new in town, but even so, she learns remarkably slowly.
The impeachment inquiry is just the latest label for the two things Adam and the Schiffites have been doing without pause since Trump was elected: showing off their high dudgeon for their activists-and-donors base and trying sweatily to convince the American people that Trump should not hold the office in which the same American people placed him. Since the White House released details of the Ukraine call on September 24, support for impeachment has ticked up, but not in a game-changing way. The facts that have dribbled out have simply confirmed the same basic narrative: Trump pushed the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. Cue outrage among some, yawns among others. So it has gone for everything Trump has done these last three years.