Pain of presidential impeachment hearings is palpable

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The American political system is so broken that intelligent citizens are already turning a deaf ear to testimony they do not want to hear.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 18, 2019.

OTTAWA—The pain of presidential impeachment hearings is palpable.

Multiple witnesses will be heard. Multiple claims will be made. And in the end, it is unlikely a single mind will be changed.

The American political system is so broken that intelligent citizens are already turning a deaf ear to testimony they do not want to hear.

During the opening day of congressional hearings, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff asked curtly that if the day’s evidence did not support impeachment, what did? Maybe there is no answer.

The public cares to know little about the facts of the case. The hearings are a very deep dive into the background of how international diplomacy works. But most people really do not care about how the president’s men, and they are mostly men, execute foreign policy. The public is largely unaware that there is a cadre of professional public servants worldwide who have made a career of representing their country in international discussions, regardless of which political party is in power. The idea of a non-partisan public service is an anathema to most.

During the height of the Jody Wilson-Raybould clash with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the non-partisan advice of a Canadian public servant with decades of experience was deemed political by all members of the opposition. Michael Wernick eventually had to resign from his post, because his advice had become part of the story. Public servants become part of the story at their peril. It mattered little that he had worked for many prime ministers of different persuasions, without ever aligning himself with a single party. Bureaucratic advice is supposed to be non-partisan but that did not help Wernick escape the wrath of the opposition.

And the same will happen with those lifetime public servants in the United States who are testifying before the Congressional Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Adam Schiff.

They will be tainted with the Democratic brush, as those who don’t like their message are standing ready to shoot the messenger.

It may seem unbelievable, but the super hype of the House of Representatives as to the evidence piling up against the president will likely not lead to the outcome the Democrats want. The president will likely face a positive impeachment vote in the House of Representatives and will survive a similar attempt in the Senate.

Meanwhile, most supporters or opponents of U.S. President Donald Trump have already made up their minds about the outcome and the hearings will not actually change anybody’s mind.

If anything, the media saturation attached to the hearings will play into the president’s witch-hunt narrative. He is successfully convincing his base that this is simply a Democratic effort to beat him, while fellow Republicans seem willing to support his thesis.

It is incredible to believe that a president of the United States could get away with threatening other countries if they refuse to launch investigations into his political enemies. Comparisons have been drawn to the impeachment process facing Richard Nixon, but the country was genuinely horrified at the time, when they heard the evidence that Nixon himself had insisted on taping. He was caught in multiple lies on tape.

This time, the public is so hardened to the barrage of lies that passes for the truth in political life that the public is no longer swayed by the potential of a lie.

We saw glimmers of that phenomenon in the recent Canadian federal election, when political parties ran advertisements repeating statements that they knew to be untrue, simply to damage their opponents. Canadian voters seemed unmoved by the lies, perhaps because they believe that lies and politics generally go hand in hand.

The truth desensitization that we are witnessing in the Washington hearings into Trump’s impeachment is a fact of political life in the 21rst century.

So, while one would think that the current debacle would hurt the Republicans’ chances in the upcoming election, I believe the nature and context of the hearings are too complex to ignite citizen ire.

The one thing Trump understands extremely well is the principle of KISS that applies in politics. We call it, euphemistically, keep it simple stupid.

If it gets too complicated, audience attention wanders away and voter interest is a diminishing return. The first day of hearings last week was already so complicated that even diehard political followers had a hard time following all the elements of the testimony.

If all goes according to Trump’s plan, these hearings will assist the president in his re-election efforts.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.