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    Saturday, December 7, 2019-12:26:10A.M.






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OPINION | Impeachment as usual

DEMOCRATS have already lost their impeachment battle. That’s the takeaway from Wednesday’s first public hearing. What was meant to be a moment in history turned out to be business as usual.

Democrats laid out their best case for removing Donald J. Trump from office, repeatedly using words like “extortion,” “bribery” and “abuse of power.” Mr. Trump was accused of “presidential misconduct,” of a “shakedown scheme” and of “corruption.” He was said to have broken the law and violated the Constitution. Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro analogized the president’s actions to “attempted murder.”

What else is new? The left has been leveling similar claims since before Mr. Trump was elected. When a party spends three years baselessly accusing a president of everything from being a Russian mole to obstructing justice, from profiting off the presidency to abusing security clearances and cheating on his taxes, that party loses the credibility to say: Really, this time, we mean it. Democrats didn’t lose the war for hearts and minds on Wednesday. They lost it three years ago.

Those hearts and minds are the only prize here. The media will continue to imbue this event with gravity, to report every bit of testimony as more “bombshell” evidence against Mr. Trump. But impeachment is a political process, so the measure of its “success” is whether its supporters can convince a bipartisan majority of the country that Mr. Trump took an action worthy of removal from office. Nothing in Wednesday’s hearing came close, and the Democrats took their best shot.

The FiveThirtyEight blog offers a useful polling tracker that broadly sums up public opinion on impeachment. Aside from a bump in favor in late September, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her semiformal impeachment inquiry, the ensuing weeks of testimony and leaks have barely moved the needle. Instead positions have hardened. Democrats overwhelming support impeachment; Republican overwhelmingly oppose it. A majority of independents continue to oppose it. And a Politico/Morning Consult poll this week found that 81 percent of voters say there is no or little chance they will change their minds about the proceedings.

As for the 8 percent of respondents who say there is “some” chance they could be persuaded, what did Wednesday’s hearing provide them? Not much new. The Democratic strategy of holding depositions in secret and leaking nuggets meant they’d already handed out their best info to the public. The hearing was a repeat, only this time with Republican pushback.

For the most part, it was a five-hour slog through the minutiae of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Even political junkies had a tough task trying to keep track of dates, meetings and the long, dizzying cast of bureaucratic players. Two State Department officials, William Taylor and George Kent, laid out their concerns over the temporary delay in security aid to Ukraine and their belief that it was driven by domestic politics.

At the same time, viewers watched the Democrats’ two star witnesses acknowledge that they had no firsthand knowledge of White House decisions on the aid. They were reminded that Ukraine got the money without launching an investigation into Hunter or Joe Biden. And they watched Republican congressmen make a persuasive case that Democrats are abusing the process by blackballing White House counsel from hearings and refusing to call witnesses from the Republican list.

A Roll Call story last week about voter sentiment on impeachment in Washington state quoted Mark Stephan, a political science professor at Washington State University Vancouver. He said most voters “are either not exactly tuned to it closely, or...they’re just like, ‘I can’t make anything of this. This all seems like a Washington, D.C., mess.’ ” That’s a Democratic failure by any measure, and it is hard to see how that dynamic could change as the hearings progress. Friday’s hearing is with a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who left that post two months before the disputed phone call. This week’s hearings will include more critics but also witnesses such as Kurt Volker, former special representative to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who will likely defend the administration’s actions. Democrats have meanwhile abandoned efforts to get testimony from central players, including former national security adviser John Bolton. Such testimony would arguably be most important, but Democrats have decided the process would take too long. They want a quick vote, not a thorough probe.

Given the current dynamic, it’s also hard to see how impeachment redounds to either party’s benefit. Both sides are already claiming victory and will use it as a voter-turnout tool in 2020. Impeachment is meant to be a big deal, but Democrats and the media have accomplished the disturbing feat of turning it into day-to-day partisan warfare. And the public is understandably treating it as just that: Washington as usual.