March 28, 2020

Impeachment May Hinge on Schiff’s Storytelling Ability

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) Photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has taken the biggest gamble of the modern political era.

Her decision to move forward with an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump could result in the forced removal of a sitting president for the first time since our nation declared independence from Great Britain. Or it could unintentionally energize Trump’s most loyal supporters to a new level of enthusiasm and voter turnout next November, providing him with the additional boost necessary to win reelection. The stakes could not be higher, and there is no historical precedent in almost 2 1/2 centuries of American history from which to predict the outcome.

In some ways, Pelosi’s decision may have been unavoidable. Recent revelations about Trump’s efforts to coerce the Ukrainian government into an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter probably left her with no plausible alternative. After the news broke, calls for impeachment spread rapidly from her party’s most progressive voices to those centrist members whose reelections would be most at risk if the impeachment effort is unsuccessful. The tipping point was a joint Washington Post op-ed co-authored by seven freshman Democrats — all of whom won districts last fall that Trump had carried in 2016 and all of whom hold military and national security credentials — calling for the investigation to move forward. Realizing that her most vulnerable members no longer wanted or needed protection from the impeachment debate, Pelosi (D-San Francisco) made her announcement the next day.

But coaxing centrist members of Congress to investigate Trump and convincing centrist voters to support his impeachment are two extremely different tasks. While Trump can be impeached by a simple majority vote of a Democratic-controlled House, he would not be removed from office unless a two-thirds majority of the Republican-held Senate voted to convict. That would require the votes of no fewer than 20 GOP senators, an almost unimaginable goal unless public opinion moves against Trump in an unprecedented way. Without that massive shift in voter sentiment, the most likely outcome is that an impeached Trump remains in office and uses the Democrats’ failed effort to remove him as a battle cry on the campaign trail next year.

Adam Schiff’s ultimate goal is to induce 20 Republican senators to vote for Trump’s removal, and even a Netflix-quality storyline might not be enough.

This challenge — whether Democrats can persuade not only their own party loyalists but most independents and a sizable plurality of Republican voters to support Trump’s removal — comes down to one basic question: How good a storyteller is Adam Schiff?

Schiff, the mild-mannered Valley congressman who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, will be the most visible public face in favor of impeachment. He must figure out a way not only to produce substantive evidence to justify Trump’s removal but to craft a sufficiently captivating narrative to engage the attention of millions of low-interest voters. This task becomes even more daunting with the knowledge that it must be accomplished while battling the headwinds of a contrary storyline delivered by Trump’s organization through the cable television and social media venues in which they excel.

Trump’s opponents argue that the president’s interactions with Ukrainian officials will be a less complicated plot to follow than the other accusations he has faced over the past four years. But while the “Trump tries to blackmail foreign government to assist reelection campaign” is certainly a provocative plotline, it’s not as though the previous controversies should have been especially difficult to understand either. At the time, allegations like “Russians help Trump defeat Clinton” and “Trump pays hush money to former lovers” would have seemed to be equally compelling attention-grabbers, but neither held public attention long enough to cause significant political damage.

There are other differences between this new controversy and its predecessors that could work to the Democrats’ advantage. Special counsel Robert Mueller conducted his investigation behind closed doors, which ceded the public dialogue to Trump. Schiff will have the platform of public hearings, which enables him to construct an ongoing case against the president that is more accessible to voters. Second, Mueller’s work focused on an election that had been completed before Trump took office. Schiff’s emphasis will be on the present and future, an election that is taking place while Trump holds the powers that come with the presidency. Most importantly, Mueller’s goal was to produce as even-handed a report as possible and to frame it in a measured and low-key manner. Schiff’s objective is very different, to tell the most fascinating and exciting story that he can muster.

In other words, Schiff may be more likely to interest voters in his argument than Mueller simply because he wants to. Honest brokers like Mueller are a necessary part of the investigatory process, but they are much less exciting to the average viewer than committed advocates. And while Schiff tends to present a somewhat understated public persona, the fact that he aspires to a different messaging outcome than Mueller makes a more impactful message much more probable.

But his ultimate goal is to induce 20 Republican senators to vote for Trump’s removal, and even a Netflix-quality storyline might not be enough. Trump and his allies would argue that the Senate’s failure to convict would represent acquittal and absolution. Along with the heightened motivation from conservative voters heading into the election, it’s more than likely that Trump’s survival would have a dispiriting effect on many of his opponents. A lackluster turnout from young and minority voters could easily lead to a repeat of the 2016 election outcome.

Pelosi might see a pathway in which Trump’s impeachment could motivate voters to rally behind his opponent, even if the Senate allowed him to remain in office. But that is a communications feat requiring messaging skills that few contemporary politicians possess. By starting down the path to impeachment now, she is betting everything on Schiff’s ability to convince enough voters to line up against Trump so that 20 Republican senators will decide to abandon the president. Either way, Pelosi is about to change the arc of history. In about 13 months, we’ll know in which direction it changed.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.