It used to be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who was the political dividing line. Whether you admired or loathed her was a very good indication of where you fell on the political spectrum. A hero to most Democrats, she was someone akin to the Antichrist for Republicans, who mocked the powerful leader in their talking points, fundraising appeals and political ads. She was even from San Francisco, for goodness’ sake.
But now, she’s been upstaged, both as hero to the left and whipping girl to the right. Adam Schiff, who represents a northeast Los Angeles district stretching from Pasadena to Hollywood, is the new Nancy Pelosi.
The evidence? For starters, in his first two years in office, Donald Trump tweeted or retweeted just six times about Schiff. Nancy Pelosi was the target of his tweets and retweets 80 times during that period. But in the last year, since Schiff became chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Schiff has surpassed Pelosi as the main congressional target of Trump’s Twitter activity, drawing the president’s scorn 366 times to Pelosi’s 276, according to data on the Trump Twitter Archive website.
The role of lightning rod is an odd one for Schiff. Where Pelosi is a firebrand, Schiff’s public persona is far more buttoned down. He does prosecution, but not comedy, very well. For years he was just an efficient congressional worker bee, low key, effective, self-effacing and polite. Then Donald Trump came along and the country learned not only Schiff’s name, but also his true character.
Schiff is still meticulous, careful and articulate, as we saw during the Russia investigation, the impeachment probe and now the trial. But he’s also outraged and not afraid to call the president out.
“You can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country,” said Schiff during his detailed hour-long closing statement at the impeachment trial. “He’ll do what’s right for Donald Trump.”
Like most Americans, I had barely heard of Schiff as recently as two years ago. A Los Angeles Times-USC poll found that only 19% of California voters recognized his name in 2015. And it’s safe to say that number would be far lower outside his home state. A recent YouGov poll found that today 63% of Americans nationwide recognize his name.
The president is among those who have discovered Schiff. Trump tried out a series of nicknames for his archenemy, including “Liddle’ Adam Schiff” and “Sleazy Adam Schiff,” before settling on his apparent favorite, “Shifty Adam Schiff.” (Though he still tweets about “Crazy Nancy” and “Nervous Nancy,” too.)
Trump doesn’t hide his feelings. “Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!” he fumed at the end of the Mueller investigation, while taking a premature victory lap.
At his rallies, Trump has found Schiff to be a reliable villain to trot out before the MAGA crowd. Campaigning in Louisiana on behalf of the Republican nominee for governor in 2019, Trump accused the Democrat in the race of being “probably a tool of that guy, Shifty Schiff.”
After the Democrats’ closing arguments at the Senate trial, the president tweeted a petulant forecast: “Shifty Adam Schiff is a CORRUPT POLITICIAN, and probably a very sick man. He has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” Many journalists, and Schiff himself, perceived the statement as a threat.
And now the White House director of social media is trolling the Congressman with a “Looney Tunes” video spoof featuring Schiff as Wile E. Coyote maiming himself as he foolishly chases the president.
Schiff’s new visibility has also attracted liberal acolytes, too, many of whom view the congressman as the person who can lead them out of the wilderness. After Schiff concluded his fierce closing argument at the Senate trial, stating “If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost,” the phrase #RightMatters blew up on Twitter. Actress and activist Debra Messing was among millions of Schiff fans who responded: “I am in tears,” she wrote. “Thank you Chairman Schiff for fighting for our country.”
FOX News had a few reactions of its own. Tucker Carlson derided Schiff after the speech as a “wild-eyed conspiracy nut.” “Amateur Thespian Schiff Tries Out Some New Lines,” the network declared in text-crawl during its news coverage of the trial.
Speaker Pelosi appointed Schiff to be lead impeachment manager because she felt his laser focus and unflappable determination in the face of a president’s unyielding attacks made him the right person to build a clear picture of the president’s corruption that would resonate with Americans.
But she must also be enjoying the fact that he has supplanted her — or at least joined her — in the political crosshairs of the far right.
Rich Benjamin, author of “Searching for Whitopia,” is a contributing writer to Opinion. @IamRichBenjamin