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What Jan. 6 hearings may show: This isn’t 1973 | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, could Dems win the midterms by stealing an idea from Newt Gingrich?

These are such troubled times — Saturday’s mass shooting here in Philadelphia the latest example. Nevertheless, joy persists in the places we can find it — like the ballpark. On Sunday night, I was mesmerized by this video from Citizens Bank Park of a boy, maybe 6 or 7, literally clasping his hands in prayer for a miracle with the Phillies down to their last out, then jumping with unbridled joy as Bryson Stott hit a three-run homer to win the game. It’s also a reminder of why we fight — for a world where joy doesn’t just exist, but thrives.

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Hearings to test whether America or Merrick Garland cares about a coup

Probably nothing better summed up the conundrum facing the House January 6 Committee — or the broad coalition opposed to former president Donald Trump, for that matter — than Friday’s report by the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman that on January 5, 2021, the top aide to then-Vice President Mike Pence contacted the Secret Service to discuss what he felt was a significant security threat to the sitting veep.

That security threat was Pence’s boss, the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump.

Given what actually happened on the infamous following day, January 6 — when violent protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” while some erected makeshift gallows and Trump reportedly told his chief aide, Mark Meadows, that, yeah, maybe Pence should be hanged — the Times article sure sounded credible.

Experienced, high-level aides to a U.S. vice president were worried that the president might cause their boss physical harm, in an event that many have come to see as an attempted coup to thwart the peaceful transfer of power after a democratic election. As the kids on Twitter might say, let that sink in.

But the news didn’t sink in, not really. It barely broke through the more-covered stories like the recent spate of mass shootings or the war in Ukraine, and American voters say they’re much more worried about the high price of gas or bacon than any threat to democracy.

On Thursday night at 8 p.m., America will finally learn if the story of the attempted coup on January 6 is ready for prime time, when the House Select Committee, which has been investigating the events around the Capitol Hill insurrection for 10 months, finally lays out what it found in a hearing that will be televised by every major network ... except Fox News.

The increasingly high-profile committee members — including Trump’s Republican Party bête noire, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, and the democracy-defending best-selling author, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland — have pledged the hearings will offer major, brand-new details, develop a narrative about the ongoing threats to democracy, and even make the case that Trump and his cronies engaged in criminal acts.

Raskin promised Monday in a Washington Post Live interview that the hearings would take the case against Trump well beyond his second impeachment in January 2021, when the House charged him with “incitement” of the mob at the Capitol. “The select committee has found evidence about a lot more than incitement here, and we’re gonna be laying out the evidence about all of the actors who were pivotal to what took place on Jan. 6,” he said.

But the success of the hearings may depend as much on the timing as the evidence. One arguably fortuitous element of that timing: The hearing gavel comes down just eight days before the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and the televised hearings are clearly meant to invoke (at least for older viewers) a throw-back to that historic moment when a nation came together to answer a threat to democracy — one that, like in 2020-21, came from inside the White House. I wrote in this space earlier this year how the Senate Watergate Committee’s summer 1973 hearings had slowly convinced a majority that Richard Nixon was unfit.

Whatever else comes from this summer’s January 6 hearings, we’ll quickly see that this isn’t 1973. Republicans have already worked hard on their plan for an aggressive counter-narrative, that the show will be a trumped-up diversion from Biden’s fading popularity, and millions will avoid the hearings to watch rants from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. “Our media environment is far more fractured, and news organizations are far less trusted,” the Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote recently — adding her skepticism that the January 6 committee will draw the viewership or have the clout of its renowned Watergate forerunners.

That’s the conventional wisdom ahead of Thursday’s hearing, and the conventional wisdom is often right. Still, I believe the January 6 hearings may have more impact than people expect. The world may have changed a lot in 49 years, but Americans still love a good story. There are millions of TV viewers who haven’t followed every bombshell January 6 disclosure, and may come to understand the perils facing U.S. democracy in a new way.

That TV audience is important, because — whether you like it or not — history suggests that public opinion will have an impact on the one viewer who will matter the most: Attorney General Merrick Garland, along with his team of Justice Department prosecutors who have been investigating the insurrection for these 17 months. No U.S. president — even after leaving office — has been indicted, even as this case of a plotted and attempted coup screams for an arrest. The cautious Garland might only have the stomach for legal action if and when the American people demand that something be done.

And make no mistake: Something most be done. It’s not just that the chief architect of this attempted coup, Trump, remains the de facto leader of the national Republican Party and its frontrunner for the 2024 presidential nomination. The virus of January 6 has infected our politics more deeply, including here in Pennsylvania, where a state senator who roamed the Capitol grounds on that bloody day — Doug Mastriano — is the GOP nominee for governor, with a scheme to impose an “election integrity” regime rooted in that day’s Big Lie upon our state.

What happened on January 6 was a crime, but the longer that its chief perpetrators roam free, the more that it instead becomes a movement, and a Lost Cause, to a delusional yet determined minority of the American people. That’s why the hearings that begin on Thursday are so important. I truly hope everyone tunes in.

Yo, do this

  1. One fascinating thing about surviving into the 2020s is seeing so many of the myths of the latter 20th century implode. Exhibit A may be that era’s archetypical quarterly-profit-driving, CNBC-hero CEO, General Electric’s Jack Welch. In hindsight, it’s increasingly clear that Welch — who ran GE from 1981-2001 and died in 2020 — ushered in a era that not only crushed middle-class workers with layoffs and stagnant wages, but ultimately killed the culture of innovation that had made GE great in the first place. It’s a story that needs to be told, and that’s done ably by New York Times business writer David Gelles in his new book: The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America―and How to Undo His Legacy.

  2. Did I mention that the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in is just 10 days away? We’ve already had our own early 1970s nostalgia-fest, with this spring’s Will Bunch Culture Club on Garrett M. Graff’s excellent new history. Now the floodgates are open, with the scandal’s chief whistleblower John Dean getting his star turn on CNN’s four-part series Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal, which launched this past Sunday and releases two more episodes this coming Sunday. Maybe it will answer the eternal questions: Was justice done then ... and what about now?

Ask me anything

Question: Could the country separate peacefully like Brexit? — Via @WaylonWillie3 on Twitter

Answer: I might have passed over this question a year or two ago, but I have to confess this has been in the front of my brain in recent days — whether the United States could split into two (or more) pieces as the differences between the political factions look increasingly irreconcilable. Clearly, radically opposite state laws on critical issues such as the right to an abortion or preventing gun violence show us moving toward increasingly separate red and blue Americas. Could the states take this agreement-to-disagree to the next level of a formal breakup, and how would that even work? I’m not convinced the United States is beyond hope — I just wrote a book arguing that educational opportunities and universal civilian service at age 18 could reunite us — but I can also imagine a break-up that might help us avoid Civil War II, not cause it. I’d love to hear what readers of this newsletter think about the prospect.

History lesson: Could Newt’s ‘Contract with America’ work for today’s Dems?

In the 1994 midterms, even though the incumbent Democratic president at the time, Bill Clinton, had just seen his health-care plan crash and burn as his approval numbers also plummeted, few pundits truly believed that Republicans could retake Congress. After all, Democrats had controlled the House for four consecutive decades. So experts thought the new idea by the GOP’s young upstart minority leader, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, was a crazy ‘Hail Mary’ pass. Gingrich’s scheme was called the Contract With America — a set of explicit policy promises like lowering taxes, welfare reform, and term limits that Republicans promised they would pass if voters gave them the majority. The impact is still argued about 28 years later, but the GOP did shock the world by winning 54 seats that fall. What the Gingrich ploy accomplished was nationalizing congressional elections that used to hinge on whether your local rep was bring home the bacon.

Flash forward to 2022′s midterms, where things look bleaker for Democrats than they did in 1994. What’s frustrating for President Biden’s party is that polls suggest a solid majority of the public support the Democrats on many key issues, including two big ones in the news recently: abortion rights and curbing gun violence. The bigger problem seems to be key voting blocs — like young voters and African Americans, whose support for Biden has softened somewhat — who don’t believe that Democrats deliver. In a New York Times op-ed Monday, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo argued that the party should collect pledges from 50 or more Senate incumbents or 2022 nominees —including several hoping to replace Republicans, like Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman — that they would end the filibuster for a vote on enshrining abortion rights.

I think that’s a great idea, but why stop there? In fact, I’d argue the best way for the Democrats to salvage 2022′s grim scenario is a full-on Reverse Gingrich: A new, progressive Contract With America in which more than 50 current or would-be Senate Democrats sign a written pledge to end the filibuster for at least four or five issues: abortion rights, banning assault rifles, expanding voting rights, addressing climate change, and resuming Child Tax Credit monthly cash payments. It’s an acknowledgement that the Democrats’ biggest problem isn’t bad ideas, but a lack of trust that they will implement good ones. They need to signal to voters that things will be different this time, and put it in writing.

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. This recent stretch was a reminder of why I write three times a week! For my Sunday column, I continued my ongoing series of pieces on why a Doug Mastriano win in the governor’s race would be a disaster for Pennsylvania, focusing on his close ties to a network of extreme right-wing activists who are still fighting to somehow “reclaim” 2020 presidential electors, “decertify” President Biden’s victory, and magically re-install Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Crazy, right? Over the weekend, I wrote about the horrific mass shooting on South Street and what it means when one party — to be clear, that would be the Republican Party — decides to value guns over humanity.

  2. I haven’t really discussed the other big Pennsylvania story this past week: The news that the multi-millionaire celebrity doctor from New Jersey officially defeated the multi-millionaire hedge fund CEO from Connecticut to become the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. What a world, huh? So now we know the lineup for November: GOP heart doctor Mehmet Oz facing the Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman, who apparently hated heart doctors so much he didn’t see one for five years! It should be fascinating, and one newspaper in America is going to cover this key race more intensely than anywhere else: The Inquirer. Subscribe today for the fall campaign, and you won’t miss a beat of the heart-pounding drama.