Schiff (D-Calif.) now finds himself trying to do just that, prosecuting the House’s impeachment case as the leader of seven Democrats who are participating in the trial of their lives.
For all seven, it marks the highest-profile moment of their very different tenures, whether they are in their 20th year in office, like Schiff, or barely into their second year, like Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.).
And there’s no guarantee this limelight moment will ensure long-term success in the political stratosphere, as the last group of impeachment managers included several flameouts and only two genuine rising stars.
For now, the managers are just trying to win a few rounds in their uphill battle to secure Republican support for calling more witnesses, let alone the two-thirds Senate majority needed to convict and remove the president from office.
Over and over Tuesday, their first full day of making arguments before the Senate, the managers met defeat. All 53 Republicans voted to block their requests for revisions to the resolution that will govern the rest of the trial, and by nearly 10:30 p.m., after GOP requests to get the Democrats to pare down the amendment volley, Schiff made clear they would keep charging into the night.
“Yeah, we’re making it hard for you,” he said. “We’re making it hard for you to say ‘No.’ We’re making it hard for you to say ‘I don’t want to hear from these people.’ ”
A few hours later, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, showed that risk reward when, taking the stand for the first time just after midnight, he lit into the president’s legal team. That sparked a more fiery rebuttal from Trump’s legal team, leading Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to admonish both sides and prompting Senate Democrats to warn their House counterparts about not taking it too far.
Schiff had been resisting impeachment throughout the summer when the liberal wing of the caucus pushed to launch a formal inquiry involving the special counsel investigation into the 2016 Russian campaign to interfere with the election.
It was confusing, and first-term lawmakers from swing districts like Crow, who flipped a seat in the Denver suburbs, found their voters reluctant to support the constitutional clash.
And Schiff knew the risk in a personal way, having defeated one of the impeachment managers for President Bill Clinton’s trial in the 2000 elections, James E. Rogan (Calif).
That crop of 13 GOP managers had plenty of ambition, and half of them went on to run for higher office. A pair of those House Republicans at the time — Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Gov. Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) — delivered strong performances when they presented the charge that Clinton had committed obstruction of justice.
By 2002, Graham had won his Senate seat and Hutchinson was on his way to several senior posts in the George W. Bush administration, before returning home.
But several other Republican managers soon joined Rogan, who is now a judge in California, on the sidelines of politics. In 2002, then-Rep. Bob Barr (Ga.) lost in a redistricting-forced primary, then ran for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 2008, winning just 0.4 percent in the general election. Bill McCollum (Fla.) lost two Senate races and a governor’s race, and served one term as state attorney general.
Schiff is a more hands-on leader of today’s managers, as he took up more than the first hour of allotted time for Democratic debate at the start of the day. When other Democrats spoke, debating amendments, they almost always deferred to Schiff to give the closing statements before the roll call.
At the start of Wednesday’s presentation, Schiff struck a deferential tone and thanked Roberts for his patience, explaining to senators that temperatures would not run as hot as they did late Tuesday.
This group is ambitious in its own way.
With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) set to turn 80 in two months, Democrats have been looking for a natural heir whenever she leaves. A year ago, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) vaulted into leadership as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, elevating his profile in a job that requires a lot of tending to the interests of all 232 Democrats.
“I have a day job,” he told reporters last week, demurring at the idea of serving as a manager.
The next day, Pelosi gave him one of the seven coveted spots.
Schiff has emerged from the impeachment investigation with an enormous profile among liberal activists and the backing of swing-seat freshmen like Crow, the rare combination needed to jump into the highest leadership posts.
When Crow, a former Army Ranger, and six other freshman Democrats with national security backgrounds pushed for the impeachment inquiry, they told Pelosi that they wanted Schiff’s committee to run the show.
In his early remarks Tuesday, Crow tied the delay in security aid to Ukraine to his own service. “When we talk about troops not getting the equipment they need when they need it, it’s personal to me,” he said.
First, Crow must win reelection in November to avoid Rogan’s fate, although his suburban district has trended from a reliably GOP seat that then-Sen. Barack Obama lost by 7 percentage points in the 2008 presidential election as he won Colorado to a district that gave just 41 percent of its vote to Trump in 2016.
Two other managers, Reps. Sylvia Garcia (D-Tex.) and Val Demings (D-Fla.), are rising stars in states that are hungry for new faces, with state capitals that have been dominated by Republicans.
Nadler and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the most tenured managers, are looking for the capstone to long careers focused on the House Judiciary Committee. Lofgren served as a staffer for a committee member in 1974 during the Nixon impeachment proceedings, before joining Congress 20 years later. She served with Nadler during the Clinton hearings.
The group faces even longer odds as the trial goes on, but the fight is now joined.
“It’s not our job to make it easy for you,” Schiff said late Tuesday. “Our job is to make it hard.”