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Have the January 6 hearings damaged Trump's political prospects? Don't count on it

by Lewis Tuesday, Jul. 26, 2022 at 3:20 PM

"He chose not to act," declared Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger at the outset of Thursday's January 6 committee hearings. With those words, the congressman got right to the heart of the final hearing of the summer.

The committee examined the 187 minutes then-President Donald Trump spent watching Fox News in his private dining room while the insurrection was unfolding at the US Capitol. Meanwhile, members of his inner circle tried and failed for hours to get Trump to issue an unequivocal statement denouncing the violence and urging the mob to go home.

Through the testimony of figures such as former Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Matthews and former Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, the committee made a convincing case that Trump wasn't just negligent -- he didn't want to stop the violent insurrection he incited against Congress on that dark day.

Opinion: Why Trump didn't want to lift a finger on January 6

Opinion: Why Trump didn't want to lift a finger on January 6

As this phase of the hearings concludes, one outstanding political question will certainly be debated: have the January 6 hearings significantly damaged Trump's standing within the Republican Party?

There's some evidence to suggest that may be the case. Whatever the reason, Trump no longer claims a strong majority of primary voters, according to a New York Times/Sienna College poll. Faced with the choice between Trump and five other Republicans, only 49% said they would support the former President, the poll found. His numbers fared even worse among primary voters under 35 and those with at least a college degree.

History shows that major scandals do have the capacity to shift power dynamics within a major political party. If this story repeats itself, Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, or former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley might find a political window to overtake Trump as the 2024 nominee.

The nation saw a similar shift take place after Watergate. During the 1970s, the political fallout from the scandal opened the door to a new generation of conservative Republicans who were able to disconnect themselves from the legacy of the disgraced former President Richard Nixon.

Opinion: Why Steve Bannon's conviction really matters

Opinion: Why Steve Bannon's conviction really matters

When the midterm elections were held just three months after Nixon resigned in 1974, Democrats increased their margins in the House and Senate as the Watergate Babies came to town, championing an agenda of liberalism and government reform.

But things were brewing within the Republican Party. By the time the 1976 GOP primaries rolled around, the former California governor and Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge against President Gerald Ford. Reagan's team attacked Ford, who stepped into the chief executive role after Nixon resigned, as part of a broken establishment. While Ford would go on to win the Republican nomination (and eventually lose to Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee, in a close general election), Reagan made significant inroads, winning primaries in key states like North Carolina, Texas, California and Georgia at a time many members of the Ford campaign staff dismissed him as too fringe and too inexperienced.

Reagan drew the support of right-wing conservatives who weren't moved by either the GOP or conservative Democrats in the South. And despite his failed campaign in 1976, Reagan opened the door for Republican candidates who were not part of the establishment. In 1980, Reagan went on to win the White House, shifting his party to the right, and bringing to Washington a new generation of conservatives who would remake public debate and change the national agenda.

It isn't hard to imagine Republican candidates in 2024 trying the same playbook Reagan used in 1976 by attacking the former President for the baggage that comes from January 6 and arguing that the party needs fresh leadership if they are going to win back the White House.

But to paraphrase a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, the reports of Trump's political death might be greatly exaggerated. 2024 is not 1974. Trump's hold on the party seems much stronger than Nixon's standing after Watergate. And with so many Republicans parroting Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen, the former President could easily rush back onto the scene and win the Republican nomination.

Trump has several factors going for him. During his presidency, he had a remarkable knack for painting himself as the victim of unfair investigations. Trump has already railed against the January 6 committee with a slew of lies, and he has an ability to persuade voters that he is fighting the establishment -- even when he himself was President of the United States.

Moreover, if Trump announces that he will run soon, he will roar back into the media spotlight and unleash blistering attacks on every Republican who is thinking of replacing him. We know what happened to "Lyin' Ted" and or "Liddle Marco."

And unlike Nixon, Trump never resigned or indicated even the slightest twinge of remorse for his actions. There has never been a public admission of wrongdoing. There is no shame. This allows Trump room to maneuver going forward, and he has numerous conservative media outlets to promote his interpretation of events, just as he and his supporters have done with the Big Lie.

Lest anyone think that congressional Republicans will stand in his way, remember how Trump had prominent members of the GOP back in his clutches shortly after they criticized him for the January 6 attack. See House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said Trump "bears responsibility" for the mob on January 6 just weeks before visiting the former President at Mar-a-Lago and posing for a photo. And according to a recent article in Politico, there are plenty of Republicans on the Hill who aren't ruling out the possibility of supporting Trump's third bid for president.

Regardless of what happens, we live in a historic moment when a president's attempt to overturn an election is not an automatic disqualifier. That basic fact might say more than anything about the fragile state of American democracy.

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