by Jeremy Fassler
Last week, Jimmy Kimmel once again found himself the unlikely spokesperson for the anger Americans feel towards the Republicans who offer thoughts and prayers in the wake of mass shootings, but nothing else. Before 2017 he had been one of the least political late night hosts, but as issues the repeated attempts to repeal Obamacare and the mass shooting in his hometown of Las Vegas hit close to home, he became a voice for all those fed up by the Trump Administration’s cruelty. Addressing the President and his NRA-funded cronies following the Parkland mass shooting, he said:
“Don’t you dare let anyone say it’s ‘too soon’ to be talking about it, because you said it after Vegas, you said it after Sandy Hook…we still haven’t even talked about it! You still haven’t done anything about it! Nothing! You’ve literally done nothing! Actually, you’ve done worse than nothing: you like to say this is a mental health issue, but one of your very first acts as president, Mr. Trump, was to actually roll back the regulations that were designed to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill! You did that! Your party voted to repeal the mandates on coverage for mental health! So I agree, this is a mental illness issue, because if you don’t think we need to do something about it, you’re obviously mentally ill!”
Kimmel ended his speech with a reminder to go to Everytown.org to call your representatives about this issue, and urging his viewers that “if they don’t listen, vote them out of office.” He was powerful, direct, and above all else, real. In the age of the Resistance, he has become the voice of the Democratic Party. And he shouldn’t be.
Now, I am not saying that Kimmel shouldn’t speak about politics. I’m not one of those people who think that celebrities should stay out of it and stick to showbiz. Sure, some are better than others at articulating their thoughts and emotions, but when someone like Kimmel wants to speak up, and speaks very well, good for them. The problem I have with Jimmy Kimmel is not with the man himself: it’s with the Democrats, because if a late night host can sell your agenda better than your politicians can, you’re in trouble.
After Parkland, the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham did a study on Senate Democrats’ tweets and messages following the shooting and saw that 26 of them had released statements without any specifics about what to do next, including presidential hopefuls like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and minority leader Chuck Schumer. It’s not like these Democrats wouldn’t vote for gun control if it came up on the floor. And it’s not they represent red states where mentioning gun control is anathema. But through these weak-tea statements, Democrats fail to read the temperature in the room. Americans want to talk about gun control and debate policy solutions. They’re as sick of the “thoughts and prayers” bromides as the Democrats are. So why are they afraid to stick your neck out by offering a potential solution?
Democrats aren’t just failing to counter the Republicans on gun control; they’re failing to do so on the tax plan that serves as Donald Trump’s only significant legislative accomplishment to date. A recent memo from Democratic PAC Priorities USA told the party that they’re losing on messaging here – the tax plan is gaining in popularity because Democrats haven’t been appearing on TV and bashing it every chance they can. Maybe that’s why, in this Politico poll from last week, 39% of respondents said they’d vote for Republican congressmen in their district, as opposed to only 38% who’d vote Democrat. This may be within the margin of error, but it’s still something Democrats cannot afford.
If the Democrats wanted to get their message across, their highest-profile surrogates would be on television every night, issuing anti-GOP talking points with the same fervor that their counterparts do on Fox News. Some, like Adam Schiff, are consistent about making the rounds, but others need to step up their game. It’s one thing for Kamala Harris to vote against the Grassley Amendment that would have given $25 billion for the border wall; it’s another to get on MSNBC right afterwards and explain to the American people why she did what she did. Harris is a leader of the party right now, but by not making the rounds, she’s weakening her political future.
As it is, the Democrat who appears on TV with the most regularity is Bernie Sanders. This is problematic because 1) Sanders is not a Democrat, and 2) He hasn’t been doing so hot lately. Even his biggest advocates in 2016 would admit that he had a very mixed record on gun control: he has supported background checks but voted against the Brady Bill and against a provision for victims to sue gun manufacturers. This weekend, he appeared on Meet the Press where for once, Chuck Todd asked a tough question that sent him into a frenzy:
TODD: After Newtown, you said, “If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen.” And Senator, you ended up voting for some of those…gun control measures that that you weren’t 100 percent sure would solve all the problems. Where are you today? Do you think now—
SANDERS: Hey Chuck, Chuck let’s be very clear…I have a D minus voting record, from the NRA. I lost an election probably, for congress here in Vermont back in 1988, because I believe we should not be selling or distributing assault weapons in this country. I am on record and have been for a very long time in saying we have got to significantly tighten up the background checks. We have to end the absurdity of the gun show loophole. 40 percent of the guns in this country are sold without any background checks…
Sanders talked on for another two minutes and got away with lying: his statistic about 40% of guns being sold without background checks comes from a 1993 survey of only 251 gun owners, conducted around the time of the Brady Bill. While Obama cited this same statistic following Newtown, Sanders has less of an excuse for sticking by it, since a new survey has cut the number down from 40 to 22% of guns obtained without background checks, and even less – 13% – among legally purchased firearms. For someone who may run again to lead a party to which he doesn’t belong, Sanders is a highly flawed messenger.
So that leaves Jimmy Kimmel, a late night host, as the most articulate spokesperson the Democratic Party has for connecting with Americans of all stripes. And he’s not unchallenged for this title. The young Parkland high schoolers who have banded together to march against gun control are just behind him, and may overtake him by the end of the year. This means that a comedian and a group of teenagers are better at speaking for liberal causes than the party that’s supposed to fight for them. If the Democrats want to take back the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, they must learn from them and stop praying for the better angels of our nature to intercede on their behalf. How should we know what we’re fighting for without a rallying cry?