Voters may care more about the cost of french fries than the compelling evidence from the Jan. 6 panel
The House special committee investigating the US Capitol riot long ago dropped the notion that it was a narrowly focused fact-finding effort, as members are using their investigation to try to protect democracy in their to defend the intensifying battle with Donald Trump.
The panel returns to the public eye Thursday after its late-summer break with a televised hearing that sources say will serve as a mid-term warning to CNN that the ex-president poses a clear and present threat to free elections.
But are Americans listening? And do the committee’s efforts to undermine Trump’s cadre of abstainers in 2022 and ensure he never again steals the presidency stand any chance of success?
While there are numerous Republican candidates running for federal and state positions on the basis of Trump’s lie that the year 2020 was stolen, this year’s turbulent campaign is most notable for other issues, including the shockwaves of the attack on the Capitol passed just 21 months ago.
New CPI data released on Thursday showed inflation rose 8.2% yoy in September. On the one hand, the cost of living index returned to its highest level since August 1982 last month. On a monthly basis, headline consumer prices have increased by 0.4% since August.
Republicans paint a dystopian picture of a nation in the grips of a crime spree in an attempt to turn the election into a referendum on President Joe Biden. While the president has claimed Trump’s “MAGA” fans have embraced “semi-fascism” and some Democratic campaigns have run ads warning of an autocratic GOP, Democrats are taking a much tougher stance against the conservative Supreme Court majority’s repeal of abortion rights and their new law cuts some prescription drug costs.
Polls consistently show that voters see the economy — a far more serious issue in everyday life than the threat to American democracy — as their top concern. Their concern was explained by the latest inflation data. Grocery bills are just a nuisance right now. Frozen potato products are 10% more expensive, non-sausage pork products are 5.5% more expensive, according to US Producer Price Index data released on Wednesday. While it would be simplistic to say that voters care more about the cost of french fries than the price of democratic liberties, it wouldn’t be far off the mark.
New CNN/SSRS poll numbers released Thursday show the economy and inflation are particularly worrying voters in contested congressional districts. While 59% of registered voters nationwide describe the economy as extremely important for their vote, it is 67% in these districts. The proportion that thinks inflation is important increases from 56% to 64%.
With committee members mounting warnings about the danger posed to democracy by Trump-backed candidates, it’s hard not to view Thursday’s Jan. 6 hearing as a midterms intervention. And with Trump already a hot favorite for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, warnings from committee members from both parties that he should never be allowed back in office are highly political by definition.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland member of the panel, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that the hearing will raise alarms about Trump’s ongoing incitement and his contamination of the 2022 election with voter fraud falsehoods.
“There continue to be subtle calls for … violence, things like saying Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has a death wish,” Raskin said, referencing comments the former president made about the Kentucky Republican. “And the refusal of a large number of Trump-inspired candidates to accept the reality of Trump’s defeat in 2020 when Joe Biden defeated him by more than 7 million votes, 306 to 232 in the electoral college,” the Maryland lawmakers added added.
“So election denial is rampant and there continue to be very frightening insinuations about accepting or condoning political violence.”
The committee is, of course, about more than politics. It has established an examination record for posterity. It vividly depicted the attack on the Capitol. It has been shown that many of those who stormed the Capitol did so believing they were acting on Trump’s orders. Using testimonies from brave Republicans who have opposed the ex-president, the committee has deciphered his relentless plan to seize power. The investigation has shown that Trump made a conscious decision not to intervene when his mob threatened the lives of lawmakers. And it has documented the fate of people like two former Georgia poll workers who faced an attack by Trump partisans simply for making sure the people’s voice was heard in the 2020 election.
And the impact of the committee’s work could continue to unfold in the months and years to come, particularly as it feeds into assessments of Trump’s fitness for office in a potential 2024 campaign. The committee may already have played a crucial role in shaping public opinion about Jan. 6 if the Justice Department, after its separate investigation into events surrounding the day, ultimately decides to press charges.
But since the committee members have presented their work in such political terms, it is also fair to consider their effectiveness as a political entity.
The panel’s televised hearings over the summer were effective and, in their highly produced and prosecutorial style, set a new precedent for how the formal theatrics of a congressional investigation could be modernized. However, some of that momentum seems to have died down during the late summer break. And there needs to be shocking new evidence and storylines on Thursday to make a big impact in the frantic final days of the midterm election showdown.
But while the committee kept Washington spellbound, there is little evidence it has dominated talks outside the capital, in a nation still struggling to shake off the hardships of a century-long pandemic and to cope with raging inflation and growth become afraid of a recession.
There was no comparable national moment of shock and understanding during the Senate Watergate hearings, which opened in 1973 and kept America spellbound. That can’t be the committee’s fault.
With media disruption and the country polarized, shared national moments of catharsis have become rare. And tens of millions of voters have been won over by Trump’s false allegations of voter fraud, broadcast 24/7 by conservative media. So many minds would certainly remain closed, however they might condemn the committee’s findings. That is the nature of modern US politics.
The most striking example of this is the wreckage of Rep. Liz Cheney’s congressional career. The committee’s vice chair knew that by outspokenly criticizing Trump for his attack on democracy, she was sacrificing her role at the head of the GOP, having already lost her leadership position in the House Republican conference on it.
But she also failed to convince Republican voters back in Wyoming that the threat to American democracy was their top concern. She lost her primary in a landslide to a Trump-backed rival, underscoring that there is no market for the message in most parts of the Republican Party that Trump poses a deadly threat to free elections.
Still, Cheney promises she’s barely started and feels obligated to oppose any White House led by the former president, who continues to flirtation with hate speech at his riotous rallies.
“I think what you’ve seen consistently and increasingly is Donald Trump continuing to suggest and say the same things that we know led to violence on January 6,” Cheney told CNN.
Some Democrats have used the post-election shenanigans to slam their Republican opponents. Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, widely regarded as the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate, accused GOP opponent Adam Laxalt of being “the face of Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn Nevada’s election results” at one point recently. And an ad by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in North Carolina’s embattled 13th congressional district blasts Republican candidate Bo Hines for saying the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and for siding with him to get the FBI to disappoint.
But the economy remains the driving force in the medium term. In a new CNN/SSRS poll released Wednesday, Biden’s approval rating rose — to 44%. But only 36% of US adults approved of his handling of the economy. And just 32% were satisfied with the way the President is fighting inflation.
Inflation is such a pernicious force – especially in the way it drains the finances of those who can least afford it, and it is felt in every aspect of daily life – that it is not surprising that that it is in the minds of the voters before the election.
But the difficulty pro-democracy advocates have had in making their struggle a dominant political issue — at least in these midterm elections — underscores the findings of experts who have studied the rise of authoritarian societies abroad. Voters often only realize that their democracy is dying when it is too late.