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The Back Booth: Even the Republicans Skipping the Jan. 6 Hearings Are Invested in the Outcome

6 minute read

Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.

In some corners of Washington, life came to a stop on Thursday as the committee investigating the Jan. 6 failed insurrection at the Capitol got underway. With dramatic testimony, smartly edited video, and the release of new documents, lawmakers started to cast the mob riot as less of an organic event that spiraled out of control than a premeditated assault on democracy itself. Pundits weren’t over-stating the potential as they compared it to the first days of the Watergate hearings of the 1970s that educated Americans about just how corrupt their government had become.

As the evening unfolded, The D.C. Brief chatted with two pros who have been in the room when such fast-paced, headline-making hearings have unfurled. On the right, Michael Zona is a veteran of such events, having served as an adviser to Sen. Chuck Grassley and a spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. During recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, he was often the staffer who shared the script with lawmakers about just how far they were pushing nominees.

On the left, Tim Lim has helped the Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden campaigns raise cash, organize online, and recruit grassroots volunteers. At national political conventions, he is one of the super-staffers who always seems to have tickets to any event one wants to attend.

Both are now consultants. The conversation has been edited.

Elliott: Gentlemen, thank you for chatting about the Jan. 6 committee’s primetime hearings. Things are about to get underway. I’ve spent all day watching cable and scrolling through the sites. What actually is the potential for these hearings to inform the public? Or are expectations just too high—or low?

Lim: I’m a Democratic operative so by nature I’m already pessimistic. I believe in the mission and the principles behind the Jan. 6 committee, but I’m worried that a substantial number of Americans have been desensitized to what happened and have moved on. Considering the growing number of GOP electeds who are downplaying what happened or even defending the attack on the Capitol, I hope that these hearings help to push back against those dangerous narratives and bring some sanity back to the discussion.

Zona: I agree to an extent with Tim. It won’t matter much. Attention spans and memories are shorter than ever in this era of information overload and hyperpartisanship. It’s been nearly a year and a half since Jan. 6, 2021. The events of that day have been so politicized by partisans on both sides seeking to gain political advantage that the public has been largely desensitized and have dug into their respective trenches. I don’t doubt the sincerity of these members for the most part, but as with all things Washington, this is also a media production, not just a congressional proceeding for the historical record. Two weeks from now, this won’t be a topic of discussion in the news—let alone at dinner tables. It will be out of sight and out of mind for most Americans in and out of Washington. And it certainly won’t register as a top electoral issue for November.

Elliott: I’m pretty sure Rep. Cheney just made clear she really doesn’t care if she wins re-election. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain” is a line for the history books.

Lim: I was struck by Liz Cheney’s testimony. She probably gave the best and most forceful speech tonight. Also that video of the insurrection was chilling and reminded me how close we were to the precipice. It’s all about the distribution of the clips and videos now, whether gets widely shared on social media, viewed, and digested.

Zona: There’s no doubt the production quality was high and the content was compelling. Tim, a question for you, if you don’t mind: Do you think if every American saw tonight’s hearing in full, it would have any electoral impact?

Lim: This is where I am torn because the footage we saw tonight should be impactful regardless of electoral impact. Could you imagine if that mob got ahold of Vice President Mike Pence or a member of Congress? If the results were thrown back to the states? It’s bone chilling.

Elliott: Michael, you’ve been inside the room when hearings like this unfold. What is the staff doing? I mean, if you’re on the House Minority Leader’s staff right now, can you even try to spin this?

Zona: Because of the composition of the Jan. 6 committee, Minority staff are able to dismiss a lot of the framing and presentation of this hearing as one-sided. The views of the committee are pretty uniform, and that’s a weakness for its credibility. These are Republican members and staff who were at the Capitol that day, so they experienced the situation firsthand. They don’t need to be lectured about its seriousness; they lived it. And that’s often forgotten in the partisan bickering.

Elliott: I think you make a phenomenal point: Staffer Twitter tonight was pretty bleak. The very subtle—or not—inclusion of the CCTV footage of Leader McCarthy’s office being evacuated really stopped me in my iced tea sip. Outside groups won’t need to put much money behind amping the ads, right?

Lim: You won’t have to push that footage with paid dollars. It will be shared and shared. Even Fox News’ audiences will probably see it.

Elliott: Thank you so much for chatting tonight. It’s been very useful.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com