On impeachment eve, the commentariat has spent years sorting itself into fairly easily identifiable camps, camps that align along an axis from anti-President Trump absolutism to a pro-Trump certainty. That axis has little to do with the four-square box. Indeed it is best to think of three different four-square boxes — one at each end of the spectrum and one in the middle.
In the box on the pro-Trump end of the axis, in the quadrant marked “influential and prolific,” for example, are Mollie Hemingway of the Federalist and Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal. At the other, anti-Trump end, again in the “influential and prolific” quadrant, are for example MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
There are many others in both boxes, of course. The middle-of-the-spectrum “influential and prolific” box includes a handful of journalists, including The Post’s Dan Balz and the Times’s Peter Baker, who could conceivably move the story off the deadlock on which it rests now: a House certain to pass an article or two of impeachment and a Senate certain to reject them, perhaps peremptorily, given the vast deficiencies in the rules of the process adopted last week by the House. (Imagine a prosecutor being able to veto a defense counsel’s star witness!)
Say the House reforms its rules to match those of impeachments past and thus restores at least the patina of fairness to the proceedings. A handful of the commentariat could then be in a position to decide the matter.
Huh? Yes, it’s true. Simply put: Only surprise defections of prolific, influential members of the commentariat from the pro-Trump camp to the anti-Trump camp, or vice versa, would shatter the deadlock. Such influencers from the former camp would give cover to Republican senators. We are nowhere near the 20 GOP senators needed to remove the president, and until you show me at least six Republican senators willing to publicly state that it’s within the realm of possibility — that the process is fair enough and the evidence of a high crime and misdemeanor conclusive enough to vote to remove — we are closer to the Miami Dolphins going to the Super Bowl than we are to removing the president via conviction.
That could change if a Hemingway or a Strassel came upon evidence they thought sufficiently damning to overcome the obvious procedural assaults on the country’s shared understanding of fair play. Americans know that such processes need to be appropriate to the circumstances, whether that means a proceeding to penalize a high school student for drinking alcohol at the prom or to grant a variance at the homeowners association for a second-story addition. Right now, the pro-Trump people think the impeachment process lacks the fair-play element and that it is unlikely to be restored. They doubt as well that an offense deserving removal has occurred.
But if one, or two, or suddenly three or six of the presently pro-Trump influencers, including both the prolific or the occasional (think of Brit Hume and Fred Barnes as entrants in the occasional category), break and switch to the remove end of the axis, then the president will be in trouble. For it is the commentariat that listens closely to its audiences and reflects the consensus views, not automatically, but by this mysterious process known as reporting.
Similarly, if influencers from the anti-Trump camp go out from the citadels of the left and into handful of states that will decide the election of 2020 and return with the news that the impeachment proceeding led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) is widely understood to be a show trial and an assault on due process that is endangering the Democrats up and down the ballot in a year, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will quickly descend from her throne to put the genie back in the bottle.
Rarely has the media possessed such power. But only if it acts in unpredictable ways. Otherwise, the deadlock persists until next November.