LONDON — To hear Democrats tell it, the “historic” sit-in in the House is a noble effort to bar terrorists from buying guns, on par with the suffragette movement, the heroic defiance of the civil rights movement, and the valiant efforts of Father Lankester Merrin to save the soul of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, all rolled into one.
In predictable fashion, most Republicans sniff indignantly at the “political stunt,” dismissing it as a public relations ploy straight out of the “Democrat playbook” — though Rep. Louie Gohmert went a step further and screamed “Radical Islam” nonsensically at the protesters for reasons only he may ever truly understand.
The hypocritical hyperventilating on the part of Republicans and the over-the-top case of the vapors Democrats have contracted is, of course, absurd. There is no “Democrat playbook” or “Republican playbook.” Having two sets of playbooks would require one side or the other to come up with some new, innovative way of politicking.
Don’t believe me? Here’s just a handful of political stunts that “very, very serious politicians who would never, ever exploit voters emotions” have used since 1980:
In 1989, the Bush administration set up a drug dealer to sell officials crack in a park across the street from the White House — and then used the drugs as an Oval Office prop — in order to match a line written into a speech the president was scheduled to give a few days later.
In 2005, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid forced the Senate into a closed-door session on the floor, ostensibly to discuss classified aspects of the Bush administration’s intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. Although the session itself was largely a useless exercise that infuriated Republicans, the public spectacle did its job, and Reid was able to extract promises from then Majority Leader Bill Frist to investigate the administration.
The following year, then-Sen. Barack Obama was one of 23 Democratic senators who engaged in an entirely symbolic “filibuster” of the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. There was never any chance they would actually block Alito, but the filibuster helped solidify Obama’s credentials with progressives and was seen as payback for the relatively easy confirmation Chief Justice John Roberts had six months before.
Worried they would lose badly in the 2008 elections, House Republicans in the late spring of that year went all in on energy issues, pushing out an “all of the above” package of proposals. Although the bills had zero chance of passing the Democrat-controlled House or Senate, then-Minority Leader John Boehner and his colleagues orchestrated a days long sit-in on the House floor. An enraged Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the protest a political stunt, enforced House rules limiting C-SPAN’s ability to broadcast it, and even turned off the lights in the House chamber.
Who can forget Sen. Ted Cruz’s awkwardly fake 2013 filibuster? The 21-hour speech featured a reading from Green Eggs and Ham, and was part of an agreement between Cruz and Reid to allow the Texas Republican to air his grievances. But while the stated goal of ending Obamacare was obviously never in the cards, Cruz built a national brand off the stunt.
And then there are the hundreds of “show votes” the House and Senate take, including the dozens of Obamacare repeal votes, annual votes on issues like abortion and climate change, and even the occasional vote to reaffirm that “In God We Trust” remains the national motto. By their very definition, these show votes are strictly political theater.
Let’s be clear: The Democratic sit-in in the House of Representatives is a political stunt. Before starting the sit-in, none of the members participating had any illusion that the bill they are ostensibly fighting for would pass. In fact, it’s unlikely any of them ever labored under the notion that the actual substance of the bill was the point.
That’s not to say none of these stunts had any sort of real value — far from it. Cruz’s fake filibuster not only helped build early momentum for the GOP’s successful 2014 election campaign, it propelled the Harvard educated lawyer to national prominence and positioned him for his run at the GOP presidential nomination this year. Show votes help create a voting record for members of Congress that interest groups and voters can use in determining whether they’ll support their re-election bid. And without the Alito filibuster, who knows if Obama would have won the 2008 election at all.
Likewise, this week’s House sit-in may have long lasting impacts on the political landscape. For decades the vast majority of Democrats and moderate Republicans have lived in fear of the National Rifle Association and its potent political operation, so much so that the NRA has essentially dictated national gun policy.
But if Democrats can withstand the inevitable advertising onslaught from the NRA over the sit-in but possibly use the issue to knock off a few vulnerable House Republicans next year, it could open a chink in the armor of the gun lobby.
Still, the notion that a symbolic sit-in on the House floor over a bill that would do little to curb gun violence can be equated with the dangers civil rights activists faced in staring down the brutal racism of the Jim Crow South? That’s silly.
So is rejecting it out of hand.
But when you remove basic building blocks out of the legislative process, lawmakers are left with precious little else to do other than stunts. And fundraising dinners.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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