The impeachment of Donald Trump was always going to be a messaging war, and on paper, it should have been a rout for Republicans. With his Twitter megaphone reaching more than 60 million followers, Trump should have been able to use his uniquely digital White House bully pulpit to sway the nation’s opinion. He should have been able to use his regular mass rallies to convince voters that he did nothing wrong. He should have benefited from the nearly $20 million the Republican Party and aligned super PACs have spent on anti-impeachment television ads over the past two months. (“A rigged process. A sham impeachment. No quid pro quo.”) He should have benefited from Fox News, which functions as a blind cabal of cable television loyalists, to effectively spin GOP impeachment talking points.
But despite all that mass media firepower, Trump and the White House have utterly failed to move the public opinion needle on impeachment over the past few months, as one-half of the country remains committed to driving him from office. It’s even worse than that in terms of GOP messaging because the percentage of Americans who support impeachment has actually increased 15 points since late summer, a huge bump given how polarized this country is.
So given all of that, why does the Beltway media maintain a myopic view on whether Democrats have failed to sway public opinion since the impeachment hearings began? Why, once again, is the news media giving the GOP a pass and insisting it’s Democrats who face the burden?
Part of the phenomena may stem from long-running media belief that Trump is some sort of extraordinary media manipulator who runs circles around Democrats when it comes to messaging and shaping public opinion. (He’s playing 3-D chess!) But he’s not, and impeachment proves that. Impeachment has highlighted, once again, how Trump struggles to reach voters outside of his base, and how his messaging and communication skills are extremely limited.
Of course, another important reason for the White House’s communication failure is that Trump proudly and publicly admitted to the corrupt behavior with regards to Ukraine that prompted the impeachment proceedings, which meant Republicans were restricted in terms of their messaging options. It’s perfectly clear that Trump’s personal lawyer was paid by crooked businessmen from a foreign country, and then the president gave that attorney unwarranted authority over American policy toward that country.
So why has the press relentlessly stressed that it’s Democrats who have to convince the country about impeachment? Why did so much of the media coverage suggest Democrats did not generate huge impeachment momentum during the hearings, and therefore they had failed? When recent polling confirmed half the country supports impeachment, the Associated Press reported, “It’s a disappointing—if not unexpected—response for Democrats, who had hoped to use the hearings to sway public opinion,” suggesting impeachment has been a political letdown for Democrats because the hearings in recent weeks have not produced a tidal wave of public support.
But where were the articles about how Republicans haven’t been able to “use the hearings to sway public opinion”?
It seems to me the impeachment messaging wars run both ways. Meaning: Both sides are intensely invested in stating a compelling public case for and against impeachment, and both sides should have been graded on that effort, not just Democrats. The Wall Street Journal last week at least acknowledged in its news coverage that “Republicans have so far failed to build the backlash to impeachment that they had hoped for,” an angle that should be a much larger news story.
By the way, I reject the idea that it’s the party initiating impeachment that’s responsible for winning over public opinion. During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, his White House ran a high-octane war room operation designed to both combat the often false allegations being made against him, to argue the law, and make sure public opinion stayed on the Democrats’ side in terms of there being no need to impeach a sitting president for lying about a consensual affair. And it worked. Unlike the impeachment of Trump, which is supported by 54% of Americans according to a recent Fox News poll, just 25% of Americans supported impeaching Clinton.
Yet we’re told the Trump impeachment war room at the White House has been a model of efficiency and success. Despite the recent friendly New York Times spin about a humming communications strategy that’s running on all cylinders, for all intents and purposes, the White House’s War Room consists of whatever is being spouted on Fox News. And because Fox News exists to super-serve a narrow niche of American politics, that means the White House-friendly messaging doesn’t reach beyond Trump’s hardcore base, another key reason why the White House hasn’t been able to notch any impeachment messaging wins.
Today, more than twice as many Americans support the impeachment of a Republican president than supported the impeachment of a Democratic president two decades ago. And the press portrays the Trump impeachment as a political and public relations failure for Democrats?
More proof the messaging has been a failure? Republicans had set their sights on more than a dozen moderate House Democrats and targeted them with an intense media campaign built around an onslaught of TV attacks ads that ran in the districts of moderate Democrats. They were designed to make Democrats feel politically vulnerable and to force them into voting against impeachment. This, while the Trump reelection campaign has spent more than $2 million flooding Facebook with anti-impeachment ads. But in the end, virtually all the targeted Democrats dismissed the GOP’s pressure tactics and voted in favor of impeachment.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.