This is a question of salience right now, given the emergence of reporting suggesting that former national security adviser John Bolton may have information strongly bolstering the case against the president. Trump, unsurprisingly, would rather that Bolton not present testimony to the senators who are empowered to remove the president from office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is inclined to agree.
The implication of the poll for Trump’s opponents is clear: Americans want witnesses, so let Bolton in. That line of thought, though, misses two important points.
The first is that Congress has repeatedly shown a remarkable disinterest in responding to the majority will of the electorate when possible. Take the example of expanded background checks for gun sales: In the abstract, legislation to that end consistently has the support of a wide majority of the country. Often, though, possible legislative responses are simply set aside, allowing members of Congress to avoid having to weigh in against the will of the people. When legislation is introduced, specific proposals are often picked apart and attacked on the basis of particular elements of the legislation.
That, as it turns out, is probably a good analogy for the debate over impeachment trial witnesses. What a celebration of that 75 percent figure buries is that the witnesses sought by the 95 percent of Democrats who support the idea are almost certainly not the same witnesses supported by that plurality of Republicans.
Democrats want to hear Bolton and maybe acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Republicans, however, want to see former vice president Joe Biden grilled, or even lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). Both sides support witnesses — but only in the abstract.
There’s evidence for that in other polling. Last week, CNN and its polling partner SSRS released a poll in which it found similarly high support for allowing witness testimony. This was before the Bolton news broke; at the time, about two-thirds of respondents supported allowing witnesses.
(CNN’s poll was conducted entirely before the Bolton news broke. Quinnipiac’s overlapped with the emergence of that news.)
However, CNN and SSRS asked a question that sheds more light on what respondents wanted to see. Specifically, they asked respondents if the push by Democrats to solicit new testimony was a function of their seeking a fair trail — or just because they wanted to hurt Republican chances in this year’s election.
Two-thirds of Republicans supported the latter view.
In other words, while about half of Republicans support witnesses, two-thirds think that the Democrats only want witnesses to hurt Republicans. Which strongly suggests that Republicans want to see witnesses who aren’t the ones the Democrats are advocating.
That said, it’s still the case that most Americans do want to see witnesses. A flat decision against calling witnesses runs contrary to that desire. As with background checks, though, the manifestation of that desire differs by party, complicating the politics. Both Democrats and Republicans should bear in mind that if witnesses are approved, neither side may be entirely happy with what they get.
Unlike background checks, though, the Senate won’t be able to avoid a vote.