Paul Ryan just showed why electing a 46-year-old policy wonk to be Speaker of the House is a bad idea.
The Speaker is not only the agenda setter for the party, but also the party’s top political officer in charge of messaging and image. In the past 24 hours, Ryan crafted a message akin to a toddler cutting out letters from a magazine and painted a party image no better than if that same toddler dumped a can of paint on the family’s new white couch.
On Wednesday morning, the House Democrats began protesting the refusal of Ryan to bring up any gun control bills for a vote in the House – a vote Ryan knows he would win. Tired of being rendered feckless, Democrats decided to take drastic, unprecedented action. They stormed the well of the House and refused to leave or allow any floor action until Ryan agreed to a vote.
This move was inspired by a similar filibuster last week in the Senate by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who has been a staunch advocate of gun control since the Newtown massacre in 2012. Murphy spoke for 15 hours on the Senate floor and eventually yielded after McConnell agreed to a series of votes on gun control measures.
Those votes went forward and all were defeated, largely along party lines, just as McConnell planned. Herein lies the difference between McConnell and Ryan.
McConnell spent his entire career working his way up the political ladder to earn his job as Majority Leader. He spent decades mastering the Senate parliamentary rules and used that mastery to advance his cause, something he first demonstrated in 1994 when he used parliamentary gamesmanship to defeat Bill Clinton’s campaign finance reform bill.
As such, McConnell understands not only how to govern a party, but how to message and win. So when Murphy took the floor last week, McConnell let him have his day in the spotlight, and then scheduled four votes that he knew he would win.
While the news cycle was briefly critical of Republicans for defeating gun control (again), McConnell’s messaging machine pitched it as a conflict of constitutional due process and, well, sorry. By ripping off the band-aid in one motion, McConnell stole the thunder from the Democrats who were reduced to once again watching their bills go down in flames.
Now let’s take a look at how the kid’s table across the Capitol handled the same situation.
As Rep. John Lewis, civil rights icon, took to the House floor yesterday, Paul Ryan made the fateful, House-of-Cards-inspired decision to recess the House and turn off the CSPAN cameras in an attempt to deny Democrats an audience. Instead, Democrats used their smartphones (hi, 2016 here, pleasure to meet you Mr. Speaker) to livestream the event from the floor themselves, which CSPAN in turn broadcast for the rest of the day.
Now, instead of another boring day on CSPAN, the spectacle morphed into almost a cult phenomenon that was being shared thousands of times across all social media platforms.
“Look at the Democrats! They’re overcoming adversity! Streaming from their phones! #NoBillNoBreak!”
Then, as if all the attention Democrats were getting wasn’t already enough of a failure for Ryan, he decided to hold an unrelated vote in the middle of the night. What did this accomplish? It brought all the major media coverage back to the House floor. Just as the fire was dwindling to coals for the Democrats, Ryan came to the rescue with a gallon jug of lighter fluid.
In his final act of political naivete, Ryan ultimately decided to recess the House for the next two weeks. In doing so, he ceded the moral high-ground to the Democrats. Their floor speeches during the sit-in castigated Republicans for refusing to take tough votes, so what did Ryan do in response? Proved them right and sent his caucus scurrying for the hills.
Could he have chosen a more cowardly way to end this standoff?
If Ryan had agreed to allowing a vote (which he would win), the news cycle would have briefly given Democrats a pat on the back for their effort and for another day or two discussed how sad it was that gun control didn’t pass (again). But by then Trump would have said something else outrageous and the House would have voted to repeal Obamacare (again) and everything would have been back to normal.
Instead of just ripping off the band-aid like McConnell did, Ryan tried to slowly pick at the edges and ended up with a festering wound. This is the difference between a father and child.
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