It was an amazing spectacle: the Democrats, led by civil rights hero John Lewis, singing “We Shall Overcome” on the House floor.
Except that they didn’t overcome.
But they got a heckuva lot of media coverage, most of it sympathetic.
The underlying issue—demanding votes on gun control in the wake of Orlando—is deadly serious. But what unfolded in the chamber was pure political theater, built around the plot of staging a “sit-in.”
It was an irresistible story for the media, the shouting and pandemonium in the House as Paul Ryan was jeered while convening a late-night session, ramming through a spending bill and adjourning until early July.
In the press, the Democratic protest was mainly framed as an act of conscience. Lewis, after all, is the onetime Freedom Rider who got his skull fractured during a clash with Alabama police on the famous Selma march in 1965.
It’s no secret that the press tilts toward a gun control compromise. Given that the Orlando killer had been on the FBI’s terror watch list—although he was off by the time he legally purchased his guns—many pundits say the no fly/no buy principle is common sense (though there are important questions about due process and government mistakes).
And liberal outlets offered encouragement until the sit-in ended yesterday. MSNBC practically went wall to wall on Wednesday night, covering such events as Elizabeth Warren showing up with Dunkin Donuts. The Huffington Post’s banner headline: “DEMS GIVE ’EM BLOODY HELL.”
Adding to the cinema verite atmosphere were the live-streaming videos on Twitter’s Periscope, shot by the Dems themselves. The always dutiful C-SPAN couldn’t carry the action because the House technically wasn’t in session, but the grainy videos wound up on C-SPAN (and everywhere else) anyway.
But what we didn’t see were a spate of stories about how the Democrats were being disruptive and blocking House business, how they were flouting the rules.
Contrast this with the way that Senate Republicans were portrayed when they refused to give Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a vote. They were roundly denounced in the media (in part because Mitch McConnell vowed to block any vote even before the president offered a nominee).
Contrast what happened on Wednesday with the coverage of Ted Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster—the one where he read “Green Eggs and Ham”—as part of his crusade against ObamaCare. Cruz was widely derided and mocked, rather than depicted as fighting for principle, especially when his tactics helped lead to a government shutdown.
Unlike the Senate, where anyone can filibuster, the majority party rules the House with an iron hand. So Ryan was basically on target in telling CNN the move was a “publicity stunt.” The speaker, like Nancy Pelosi before him, can keep any bill he wants off the floor.
What’s more, and some of the stories acknowledged this, if there had been a vote, the Democrats would have lost, just as they failed to win approval for four Senate measures, two sponsored by each party. So this is pure protest politics.
Back in 2008, when Democrats ran the House, the GOP tried to block an adjournment, refusing to leave while insisting on a vote on an energy bill. Pelosi was dismissive, accusing the Republicans of “obstructing common-sense proposals.” She and her party left town for summer recess anyway, darkening the chamber and having the C-SPAN cameras turned off.
Today’s House Democrats undoubtedly succeeded in firing up their base. And the underlying issue—how to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists—is worthy of a full-fledged political and media debate. But for all the headlines, the Democratic sit-in is ultimately a sideshow.